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. 

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.

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.

On the Visual Appropriation and Erasure of Lower Caste Histories with Khushboo Gulati

SA
Hi Khushboo!! I’m so grateful to be speaking with you. How is your spirit feeling this evening?

K
Hello! My spirit has been ruminating this evening ~ been sitting with my thoughts, letting myself flow and create! How is your spirit? And also excited to be here and in dialogue with you! 

SA
So glad to hear that you’ve been able to have what sounds like a fluid and restful day. I think this retrograde combined with the new moon energy has been pretty heavy for me personally, I’m looking forward to spending the next few days in rest and quiet contemplation. Can you speak a little about your practice with me – if you can even generalize. You are someone who is so multidisciplinary, multi skilled + multitalented – so maybe, how do you define the art that you create if you were to narrow it down?

K
I hear you! These last few days have felt chaotic energetically so I have been resting more and my dreams have been very amplified! 

Yes! Thank you for seeing me! My creations engage with my journeys of flesh and spirit, time(less-ness), flower splendor, the elements, challenging values and narratives of oppression, rewriting internal and external narratives, transformation, detangling pain, my dreams, and igniting wonder. My art practice is a reflection of my healing practice. My practice is rooted in embodiment and sensorial activation and is reflective of my own process of self-excavation and evolutions into my deepest selves. My process is shaped by ritual, elemental reverence, stillness and movement, collaborations with qtbipoc community, liberatory politics, and my intuition! Is this narrowed down enough haha?

SA
So so so beautiful. One thing about your art practice that really drew me in is how tangibly sacred your process is. And how willing you are to offer that with the world. I also really love this notion of sensorial activation. I’ve only recently come back to my body, I’m still calling bits of myself back, and your work is so palpable while also speaking to inner healing. 

Your tattoo work is especially something that struck me – when did you get into tattooing and how did you begin to foster the process of channeling inner vibrations through the tattoos? What does that look like when you are giving someone else a tattoo?

K
Thank you for your affirmations! I appreciate hearing that ~ Sensorial activations in my work came from my own healing work. It brings me closer to my spirit and invites a deeper connection to my body. My art has been a sanctuary to create new worlds that reflect my visions, desires, and pleasures and invite different ways of feeling, being, and seeing from what is taught to us or socialized. The process of calling ourselves back into our bodies and spirits is definitely a nonlinear and expansive ongoing process that takes new form as we grow, unlearn and relearn and revel in the unique and magical songs of the self! My tattoo work has definitely been an expression of sensorial activation, as a somatic healing practice that bridges and expands mind, body, heart, and spirit! I started learning how to tattoo in 2016 from my friend Sookie, the night I graduated from college, which was a really symbolic moment of moving away from this academic logical world to this sensorial, intuitive, and creative world. I was dreaming a lot about tattooing myself months before this night but was not consciously acting on these visions. I feel like I have been connected to this practice in various forms (and in training) since I was a kid. I was always the kid drawing on other people in class with my inky ballpoint pen, drawn to adornment, was raised in a household that was visually stimulating with Indian wall hangings and embroideries my mom decorated the house with that I was subconsciously studying. I started to do mehndi/henna for myself and my community and felt really connected to that energy exchange and ritual. When I close my eyes I see patterns, fractals and intricate images constantly. I also feel that having a dance practice growing up shaped my understanding of the rhythms of the body and how it moves, which informs how I tattoo. Decorating the body with sacred adornment has been so powerful for me as a queer non-binary person in defining myself on my own terms and celebrating the vibrances that I feel within! I also feel that what I have learned from organizing has informed my practice of tattooing as a political act of honoring and celebrating the layers, stories, and histories that belong to the communities I tattoo! I transitioned to learning how to use the machine last year with the help of community, Mirza and Jaime. Honoring my teachers in this work is so important to me! I am self taught and community taught!

My tattoo practice is rooted in amplifying the autonomy of and connection to our bodies, hearts, and spirits, inviting transformation and deeper self-awareness. Each session is a sensorial ceremony to mark the flesh with symbols soaked in intentions and prayer, acting as a powerful tool to reclaim the body, challenge fear, projections, expectations and the socializations of our bodies. My client and I will talk about their meanings and what it brings up for them over email. I never share my flash sheets online to protect my work and because they are also so deeply personal and reflections of my spiritual journeys and lessons. When the client arrives at my studio, we usually check in about how we are both doing and I go through what the tattoo process will look like. I ask their body boundaries, communicate with them how I will be working on their body/where I will be placing pressure, reminding them we can move with this process in ways that support them and their comfortability with breaks and breaths. 

Once the image is placed, I ask that we take 3 deep cavernous grounding breaths and to set an intention with this tattoo. I ask what they would like to affirm, invite, celebrate, or release with this piece and I set an intention as well. After that process to invite presence we begin the process. Tattooing different parts of the body can bring up a lot of emotion and energy, so I want to make sure to hold space for this and encourage the client to listen to the messages of what is coming up! There is never any rush with my sessions, I do not like to work with that energy because it disrupts my process and channeling. Because I am a Gemini, I love to ask questions and I will usually talk with my client (to whatever extent they want to share) about their journeys, how they flow through this world, what they creating and dreaming about, what they want to transform, their ancestral histories, their favorite time of day, etc! 

SA
Wow Khushboo, I am so moved by how deeply intentional and thoughtful your process around and within tattooing is. The reverence you have for this palpable energetic exchange, the ways that you’re making room for lineages and hundreds of years of histories – it’s such a holistic approach to embodiment and meaning making.

I know for me, I’ve had to really slow down when considering who I will approach for my next tattoo because I do want to be in a space where my body is honored and my spirit is seen. It’s so comforting and exhilarating to know that you’re really digging deep and combining gentleness and interrogation into your tattoo work. 

I want to talk to you about a recent trend that I’ve been observing that is the tattooing of markings that resemble that worn traditionally by Dalit, Adivasi and other ‘lower caste’ communities. I only have recently begun learning about the ancestral histories behind these types of markings and it’s concerning that there is this rising trend where both South Asians and non South Asians are pulling from communities that have been historically discriminated against without context. What have you been thinking about this?

K
The energy exchange of tattooing is so vulnerable and intimate, it makes sense to want to work with an artist that moves with community care and trauma-informed approaches. For me, this work is not just transactional or commercial, it is so process oriented and invites so many worlds of flesh and spirit. Tattoo artists must consider who is coming into their space, what they are bringing, and how to honor their clients as well as themselves. This has also meant making visual vocabularies that are outside Brahmanical and white imaginations. Tattooing, in my approach, is a form of care work of holding space, deep listening to the body, energy, and the client, and supporting the client in activating their agency through this process. 

Upper caste people have been appropriating and taking from caste oppressed communities since the inception of the caste system—from their literal labor, their cultural practices, to their humanity. This dynamic of upper caste people appropriating tattoos that come from oppressed caste communities is a very colonial dynamic and peak casteism. The ease through which upper caste people appropriate comes from caste privilege and this domination mentality/psyche of entitlement, lack of self-awareness, disconnection from the self and their positionality, and not knowing the vast histories of oppressed caste communities. This dynamic is also coupled with capitalism and patriarchy, where upper caste people reduce tattoo histories and vocabularies from oppressed caste people down to just aesthetics. This dynamic is extremely harmful and violent, and perpetuates caste supremacy. It destroys the sacred! I was reading from Akademi magazine that “Savarna history is a history of erasure.” Appropriation feeds anti-indigenous ideologies and is another form of colonization of oppressed caste communities. By appropriating these visual languages, upper caste people are erasing the contributions, intellectual+creative labor, imaginations, and agency of the original practitioners and wearers of these tattoos. Upper caste people can adorn themselves with these appropriated symbols without consequences and receive praise and adoration, while oppressed caste bodies are hurt, policed, controlled, and dehumanized. This appropriation is extremely disrespectful and harmful in a time of Hindu fascism, rampant caste violence, and ongoing labor exploitation of oppressed caste communities, when oppressed caste communities have shaped everything without receiving credit or dignity. They have created the visual expressions and cultures of South Asia and we have to honor them and their artistries. 

Upper caste tattoo artists and non-South Asian artists have a responsibility to practice integrity by honoring and respecting the boundaries and practices of oppressed caste communities. Tattoo artists must incorporate deep research into their practices and integrate anti-caste work into our practices. To be transparent, I am caste privileged, making it an even greater responsibility to challenge this casteist appropriation and actively listen to and support Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi liberation movements. 

Something I have noticed is that a lot of upper caste people in the diaspora will look to aesthetics as an entry point into understanding their identities, but will not think about the artisans and makers behind these crafts, textiles, embroideries, etc. It is in this process that the meanings, intentions, and histories of oppressed caste people get commodified and decontextualized. The irony is that I will see upper caste tattoo artists and people talk about appropriation of their ~culture~ by white people but will not even mention how they are replicating the same dynamic through casteism. Another layer to this is that many upper caste people’s perception of their culture has been shaped by Brahmanism and North Indian Hindu upper caste hegemony, which is inherently violent and problematic. Additionally, while simultaneously taking from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi visual practices, upper caste people and non-South Asians are romanticizing Southasianness and Hindu imageries with tattoos. This is deeply dangerous as well because of how Hinduism is also appropriated from oppressed caste people and has caste supremacy and brahmanical patriarchy written into its scriptures. The construction of Hindusim as a peaceful, romanticized religion comes from upper caste Hindu elites utiltizing European historiography of India as this mystical peaceful land. Hinduism has been used as a tool for nationalism, fascism, and upholding upper caste ideals. Brahmanism/Hinduism & caste supremacy is a construction by upper caste elites to create systems that subordinate, exploit, and control oppressed caste communities and represent Indian society as a monolith. It was framed as a holy and sacred structure to justify its existence and to maintain its power so deep, deep in the psyche of South Asia and South Asian diasporas. The gravity of this appropriation of tattoo languages by upper caste people is manipulative, immense and wrong by how much trauma and damage casteism has caused and continues to create. These acts are a form of spiritual and political warfare. Nothing is separate from history. Tattoos are political, the body is political, it is the site of imagination and possibilities. It is a reflection of the social, political, emotional, spiritual, psychological and historical ecosystems, circumstances, and journeys they come from. One cannot detach tattoos from history and dynamics of power. 

SA
This is such an in depth interrogation of the violence that exists within so much of South Asian caste culture. Even within the system of yoga, there’s so much space made to critique the west’s appropriation of the practice, and yet so many South Asians are unwilling to address how the practice itself has its roots in violence against lower caste communities. 

Now especially as we are experiencing the peak of Hindu fascism, it’s so interesting how platforms like Instagram get used to proliferate these images of South Asianness funnelled through ~experimental village-esque~ tattoos. It’s so crucial for us to really think about how we are playing into the mass spiritual, institutional and physical erasure of lower caste and historically marginalized South Asian communities. We absolutely need to start interrogating the ways we perform our identities – even more so if we feel like we don’t have a connection to caste dynamics, because that is usually how and why we become so complacent with the romanticization of ‘South Asianness!’ I want to delve so much deeper but I want to be mindful of your time, to end – do you have any resources that you might want to share for folks who are interested in learning more about the caste histories and visual languages of tattooing? And what advice would you give for those who maybe already have markings on their bodies that they weren’t super intentional about? 

K
Yes caste is everywhere and engrained in every facet of life, making it even more important to constantly be interrogating everything we have learned about South Asia and South Asianness. I want to give thanks to the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and Muslim activists, scholars, artists, paradigm shifters that I have learned all this information from.

I remember when I was first researching tattoo history in India it was hard to find comprehensive information and now I realize this is because of Brahmanism. I have been learning from Dalit feminists, that this is the savarna washing of history with casteism denying and erasing oppressed communities and their histories and the resources to wholly document their vastness. When I did find articles there was barely mention of caste dynamics and written in condescending or voyeuristic tones. My learning has come from caste oppressed activists, artists, and culture workers on instagrams and thru online articles. B.R. Ambedkar, brilliant Dalit visionary and leader talked about building a counter culture to Hinduism & caste supremacy. This means making sure our tattoo practice feeds a culture that is working towards liberation of oppressed caste communities. Our tattoo practice must nourish a counter culture that honors and encourages healing, transformation, harmony, inner work, accountability, action, communication, research, pleasure, joy and authenticity. 

As I have learned from Ambedkar and other Dalit activists, true allyship means to abolish caste and divest from Hinduism. There is nothing to salvage or reform about institutionalized injustice! 

For deeper learning, there are so many resources online you can find through the Equality Labs page—they have a list of book recs. I would recommend reading The Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, Debrahmanising History by Braj Ranjan Mani, books by Kancha Ililah, articles by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, to name a few. Follow the pages of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi artists+ activists. Some wonderful pages to follow– @artedkar, @bakeryprasad, @partyofficehq, @coolie.women, @sharminultra, @gracebanu, @ranaayuub, Huma Dar, Yalini Dream, @ManishaMashaal, @kirubamunusamy, @artwhoring, @akademimag and sooo many more. 

Upper caste people must challenge casteism in their families and caste network! As Dalit feminists have stated, the burden should not fall on Dalit people to fight Brahmanical patriarchy and caste apartheid—this is an upper caste creation and upper caste problem. Upper caste people must listen and surrender to Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi leadership, liberation and communities. Organize with folks committed to caste liberation, find an Ambedkarite organization! Upper caste people must engage in deep inner work by taking responsibility for the harm our ancestors have caused and were complicit in. This is healing the conscious, subconscious, and conscious where casteism resides. This is healing and taking responsibility for your bloodline, of reprogramming, dismantling, and interrupting toxic and violent belief systems and behaviors. Because caste is so embedded in our relationships and psyches, it is critical to heal how we build with one another. 

Creating a connection to the self outside of caste supremacy requires us to be creative and open our hearts. We must remember that we have the capacity to grow into other forms of knowing and connection, especially knowings that center liberation. We must remember that we can shapeshift and transform. We can create new worlds, traditions and rituals that affirm life. We have to build relationships outside of assigned illusions of caste supremacy and invite a deeper more radical loving. To the folks who have markings on their bodies that were not very intentional, I would say let this be a learning moment to move with deeper intention, self-interrogation, and research. Let this be a reminder to interrupt casteism and caste apartheid everywhere. May this be a reminder to commit to a lifelong journey of undoing the violent legacies of Brahmanism. May this be a reminder to bring forth the worlds envisioned by caste oppressed communities. May this be a wake up call to fight for the dignity, humanity, autonomy, justice and healing for oppressed caste communities. May this be a reminder of the reparations upper caste people owe oppressed caste people. May this invite you to rewrite history so that the same cycles of history and hatred are not repeated.

Khushboo is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer born and raised on Tongva Land (Los Angeles). Their creations engage with the journeys of their flesh/spirit, time/less-ness, ritual, flower splendor, the elements, challenging values of oppression, embodiment, rewriting internal & external narratives, detangling pain, dreams, and igniting wonder. They channel through painting, tattooing, graphic design, sensation activation + curation, textiles, installations, and dance, creating lush worlds around saturated loving, healing and existing… new ways of flowing, being, seeing, connecting. Their work is guided by shifting paradigms, transformation, metaphysical spiritual exploration, intuition, creating autonomous affirming spaces that center justice, liberation, love.

Their practice has been an ever flowing journey of constant learning, flowering since 2010. They are interested in reflecting the deep connections between the personal, political, and spiritual. Their work has been and is shaped + informed by decolonization and debrahmanization, anti-capitalist anti-racist organizing, abolition, ending caste apartheid & Islamophobia, Black liberation, queer and trans liberation work, disability justice frameworks, & healing+spiritual justice work~

 

Unearthing Origins through Audio Codes with Meftah

SA
I’m so glad we finally could make this happen, thank you for being here this evening. How are you feeling? Can you describe your energy today?

M
I know, honestly so happy you wanted to do this, I really appreciate it! Today: my energy has been balanced. 

SA
Balance right now is so crucial given the circumstances. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up? What did you want to do when you were younger + how did you get into music?

M
Yeah right now, the only thing I have been focusing on is my health, and my peace of mind. Time is crazy right now. I am from MetroDetroit, just a few minutes north of Detroit. I have lived around here my entire life. When I was younger, I actually did say that I wanted to be a rapper. Obviously I don’t rap haha but the obsession with hip-hop and beats started early. My mom had a piano in the house, and I would just sit next to her and listen to her play, and I eventually just started messing around with it. One thing led to another, I got a drum set from an old neighbor, taught myself to play, and then just kept growing from there.

SA
Sounds like a very organic progression, did you teach yourself how to read music as well? 

M
I actually do not know how to read or write music. Honestly, I don’t really ever know what notes I’m even playing. I was just sampling records and figuring something out to play over them on the instruments.

SA
Ok wow, my mind is blown. My parents tried to get me to learn the piano but I always struggled with reading music and so ended up kind of just learning by ear. We grew up around a lot of gospel and hymns (raised Christian) + eventually my parents would take me to temples and arangathams for friends’ weddings and performances where I was introduced to more ancestral forms of music making – this really informed my love for sound, less lyric, more vibrational. If and how do you think about your production as a form of ancestral transmission? 

M
Oh wow, yeah I was going to ask what your background was. That is interesting because my mother is Christian, and my father is Muslim, but we grew up going to church too, and eventually stopped because for me, it just didn’t make any sense. That style of worship does not resonate with what I know is within my own bloodlines. But my ancestry and familial history is actually the largest inspiration and influence for my work. I believe my understanding for music and percussion solely comes from that. Tonality, rhythm. All of those things are a huge part of Algerian and Indian culture. In the language, in the music, in the food. I don’t think I would be able to have the kind of relationship I do with music if it was not for my ancestry.

SA
Right – yes!! I’m Tamil, my parents fled Sri Lanka during the genocide in the 80s and made their way to England then Australia. What I’m hearing from you connects so deeply with me, especially knowing that you don’t really work through a ‘rigid’ form of reading/knowing music – it’s almost like a feeling that just comes through your tapping into your own lineage. A direct transmission.. Has making music allowed you to connect deeper with your lineage?

M
That is a lot of moving around, it must have been really intense for them when they initially fled Sri Lanka. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. Precisely. I don’t know why I feel so comfortable with the language of music, so that is really the foundation of my understanding, at least to my own knowledge. My environment also contributed, but really only until I started surrounding myself with other people who made music. I think ever since I seriously started to consider the message and meaning in my music, I began to look back into my roots, and reach out to my family back home. Moreso my father’s family in Algeria just because we have a more immediate connection with them. My mother’s side never really connected us with our family in India. But again, the music has allowed for me to connect with that side of me in a different way.

SA
I feel you, I don’t know what my lineage is like past three generations because conversion and colonization messed it all up. Meditating on carnatic music was one of the first ways I was able to feel a deeper link with my histories. I think it’s so beautiful to think about how we’re led to this art form as a way to reestablish that connection.

One thing we’re thinking about at Studio Ānanda is sound healing, the way that sound can facilitate the clearing of energetic blocks on a mental, physical, emotional and spiritual level. I grew up a pretty depressed kid and one of the only ways I knew how to feel was through sound. I was 8 years old and sobbing to Nina Simone and bhajans and then to experimental electronic stuff like Gold Panda – the raw climatic sounds really helped me articulate and experience a lot of suppressed emotion. When we think about Indigenous practices around sound, meditation and healing has always had this kinship with sound. Whether it be Aboriginal Australians using the didgeridoo or Tibetan Monks using sound bowls, there is a lot to say about the way the experience of sound manifests not just through the audio but also the frequencies and vibrations.

Is this something you think about when producing music?

M
Colonization is more than just stealing land, it destroys the identities and mentalities of people who have experienced so much violence. They think if they change, they will stop experiencing it, but it’s not true. It’s so sad, cause now look at us. When we have children, how are we supposed to pass on the stories and traditions? In a way, music is one of those traditions. A form of storytelling. It actually makes perfect sense that these tones and vibrations arranged in specific rhythms is like…unlocking something buried deep within our hearts. It is like cheat codes. The information we were not supposed to find. The physics that the colonizer tried to steal and hide from us. So yes, I completely believe that these frequencies, when played with intention, can ultimately heal and free us. The repetition and ritual of music is so sacred. It holds a power that can truly transcend our consciousness. I have actually been reading this book on Sufism, and it’s whole focus is explaining that the concepts professional musicians use for playing (specifically the Sufi drummers), are also the concepts they use to exist in life. Like harmony vs. dissonance. Tone and rhythm. It makes so much sense. I think you would love that book. It is by a person name Hazrat Inayat Kahn. I will send you a link to it after this!

SA
Ooooof yes – please share. 

There is so much more we could talk about about the uncovering of ancestral wisdom by tapping into frequencies + I really want to keep having this convo with you.

I want to just hold space for how I actually discovered your music because I feel that in itself is such a testament to how our communities build and grow. My dear friend + a spiritual mentor for me, Travis, sent me Information Travels Through & it became something I was listening to quite frequently, especially in the mornings as I meditated + stretched. Khalil Gibran wrote something about how “the reality of music is in the vibrations that remain in the ears after the singer has stopped singing and the player has stopped plucking the strings.” I felt that so intensely when I was passed on your art as a form of love. I then passed it onto a couple of my close friends who also said they felt like this was a piece of heaven – like this communal exchange to raise vibrations. 

What importance do you place on sound as something integral in community building + fostering strong networks? 

M
Wow, I am honestly speechless right now. It’s crazy to hear that it resonates with you and so many people I have never actually met before. That is the power of music though. You said it spot on though, just in terms of the testament on how our communities move. In the same way that we are trying to find ourselves, we are also searching for people who are on the same journey. People who are looking for one another. We have all been torn apart through colonization, and manipulation. Music is one of the last few things we still have to communicate honestly. That and food. Music has led me to create so many crazy relationships. So many intersections of different lifestyles and backgrounds have come together and built something beautiful through music. I always say, it’s just physics. The gravity that pulls us together is music.

SA
So so so beautifully put, Omar. What a grounding and healing art form you have created, thank you. I could talk to you for hours about this – but I want to be mindful of your time so, to end, what are three things you’re listening to right now that are helping you find the aforementioned balance, and who are three dream artists you would want to collaborate with? 

M
Again, this couldn’t have been any more proper. Just fascinating how we even got here haha when you sit and think about it, it bugs you out!!! Makes you wanna know, “How???” But right now, I have been listening to a TON of Horace Silver, he has this series of 3 LPs called the United States Of Mind, and all 3 of those records are absolutely integral. I have also been listening to a lot of George Duke lately. Seriously always blown away everytime I put his records on. And lastly, really mainly listening to my own stuff. trying to see how a lot of these new ones sound together for a project. I feel like I am already working with who I’d be dreaming of. I am blessed to be surrounded by so many inspiring people. Seriously, thank you for reaching out to do this Prinita. I appreciate talking to you so much, and I will definitely send over that book!!

Sexual Self Consent with Aaron Michael of Kama

SA
Where are you in the world are you, Aaron? 

A
In London.

SA
How are you feeling?

A
A little bit tired, I guess. But I did have a nice meal. I had some Indian food, I ate some palak paneer with a spicy dal dish, and tandoori chicken. And then my favorite was a fresh mango, with some red grapes, red currant grapes at the end. And then several glasses of water.

Where are you at?

SA
I’m in Sydney right now.

A
Oh, nice.

SA
So, how did you get involved with Kama?

A
Well, I was recommended by one of the experts who work with Kama. I was working on a section in a book I was writing, and I found her to be a defining expert in this particular chapter. So I contacted her. From there, she told me Kama was looking for, basically, a male sex coach or someone to focus on pleasure for penises.

SA
And how has it been so far? What has your experience been like working with Kama?

A
Working in sexual wellness can be a bit of a lonely field in that everyone knows each other, but everyone’s also doing their own thing. So to finally be part of an organization that, you know, has a variety of experts, business advisors, and then also a team of passionate people who are dedicated to both sharing information as well as producing content in this area… I mean I pretty much talk about sex and relationships all day, so it’s not only a dream for me, but frankly for my wife, too. She doesn’t have to hear me talk about it all the time.

SA
How did you become a sex coach? What was that journey?

A
I guess a lot of people in this field will say that they started off as a kid, but yeah, in some ways, as a child. I remember having little get-togethers with friends, and always talking about sex and relationships. I even got in trouble once with my parents, and the next-door neighbor’s parents. They walked in, and one of the kids was talking about body parts. We’d done these ‘workshops’ in early childhood, but back then we were just trying to figure out what this was or what that was. I think one of the kids told their parents, not thinking anything about it. After the parents came in and sort of shamed everyone – on our attitudes as kids, around our bodies and around talking openly about sex. I was fortunate enough that my parents didn’t do that. I think there was a mild punishment, maybe I got grounded for a day or something. But they didn’t make this huge ordeal out of it. 

I came from a very conservative Christian family with parents who were missionaries. Coming from this background, I didn’t masturbate until I was 19. I had a different initial take on sex, thinking I was going to wait until I was married. At the same time, I didn’t get why people were weird about sex and sexuality. I didn’t really know how comfortable I was with this stuff until some friends from high school told me they weren’t surprised I had become a sex coach. Apparently, I was the person they could talk about sexuality with, although I never really thought of myself that way, since I was never the one who was actually having sex. But I was the one who people thought was having sex. So that always struck me as funny. 

Later in life, when my mother burned herself while cooking, causing some nerve damage, I actually learned how to massage and support my mom’s neck and back. I never really thought of it as massage then. Then I did the same for myself and for other athletes on my sports teams. Then I read books on massage. I ended up doing a decent amount of casual massage work because that’s just where my interests wound up.

Once I developed my techniques with touch and my hands, it allowed me to learn more about the body. Working with touch, or through physical contact, has given me a better tendency to perceive. I feel that I get to know a person much more through their voice and hug than I would by looking at them visually. I also have a background in martial arts. There was a particular teacher that was big on connecting with one’s breath and balance. Through my time with him and practicing massage, I noticed that certain types of comforting touch could also be used to create a lot of hurt and pain. But once I became aware of those areas and shifted my intention away from pain, I realized that actually these are the same places that can bring the most amount of healing and pleasure as well, once given the gentle care and attention it requires. When I got deeper into my journey to become a sex coach, I applied these same philosophies I learned from therapeutic massage.

SA
There’s so much there that just sent light bulbs popping off in my head. But first, can you talk a bit more about this concept of healing from pain and turning it into pleasure?

A
Before I married my wife, we had quite an amazing sex life together for about four and a half years. After our marriage, literally the day after we got married, her body started to shut down. She reached a point where she wasn’t feeling sexual sensation and was even starting to feel pain in her vagina. I was very well read on everything around sex, but this was something I didn’t know enough about. So my wife went to go see a midwife who worked with a certain touch technique that focused on removing pain from the vagina, using both the body and mind. That midwife and I started to work together. I reached out to nurses, doctors, psychologists – anybody I could find who could take care of this. Vaginal pain was a common medical issue, but I couldn’t find any professionals who also believed there to be a healing or meditative perspective to it. So over the period of a year, this midwife and I worked with over 100 different people and started to note a pattern of behavior emerging. During this time, we believe we figured the quickest way to get out of pain, then the quickest way to find pleasure, and then how to work with the body. We then also found that people were usually doing things the opposite way. Because of how sex gets depicted in pop culture and in porn, which is as hot, heavy, friction-based sex, we follow along. But over time, this way of sex can actually incur different types of pain. So working with these individuals and couples to relieve pain was the basis by which I pursued my work.

SA
I want to go back to what you were talking about in terms of your upbringing. Can I ask how old you were when you were gathering your friends around to do these sex ed sessions? Do you remember?

A
We were probably about ten or so, playing all these different types of games around sex and sexuality.

SA
It’s interesting. I grew up in a very conservative Christian household as well. I think as I started to move away from it, is when I really started to take my sexuality seriously. As someone who grew up as with sexual abuse as a child, I lived with vaginismus for most of my adult life. I only just healed from it a couple of months ago.

A
Oh, congratulations!

SA
Thanks – the parallels with me healing from it and moving away from my conservative Christian upbringing, were right next to each other. So I wonder, do you often think about how your own sexuality and your own interest in sexuality has been marked by your religious upbringing, if at all? Can you find the link between maybe your spirituality and your sexuality or your interest in sexuality?

A
I can definitely find a link. As a child, there was a part of me that saw people in church and thought that they were very awkward in their own bodies. I’m someone who reads a lot out of body language and has the ability to gain context from tactile touch, so I had always thought that there was a bit of oddness around their movements. Because they didn’t seem confident to speak about sexuality – which, if it’s so sacred, then why is it that there’s no teachings on how to do it properly? Aside from maybe the book of King Solomon. So because of this growing up, I never paid too much credence to sex as a teen.

For me now, the connection between one’s spirituality is very much that the mind is an embodied mind. I don’t see a separation between mind-body-spirit. It’s actually one whole, and these things complement each other in a way that becomes something more. To deny my sexuality was always going to mean that I would be denying my spirituality, as well as just my general person. That is intimately tied to the way that I have experienced spirit, and also the way that I look at how to generate energy. It’s not just about working out to get stronger, or reading books to become more knowledgeable, sex has an energy that can both charge another person as well as charge oneself, and discharge as well. When I finally started to have sex, I found that there was no other more intimate way to really get to know someone and to see them from every perspective, while at the same time revealing oneself. We’re oftentimes stuck to words, so when we get the chance to express ourselves in sex and sexuality, I feel that so much more is transmitted, more than than one could ever put into a single conversation.

SA
Can you speak a little bit more to this idea of energetic bonding through coming together sexually? I’m only really understanding that recently and am trying to wrap my head around it. What do you think about that?

A
It’s your fingerprint. It’s your palate, it’s using all of your senses. We talk about this at Kama, what it is to sensualize life, or to experience life fully with all of your senses. Not just your sight, but also with touch, taste, and smell. To allow yourself to be stimulated through your ears and then to bring that into a sexual experience. This way of living in and of itself has a certain energy or flavor or frequency – whatever metaphor you want to use.

In terms of the electromagnetic frequency that one’s body puts out, when we bring ourselves and express ourselves fully in a sexual exchange, the interaction starts with words, then goes to touch, and continues to escalate. We show more and more layers of ourselves, we bear our naked soul, our spirit, our body. When we do that with somebody else, we create a link. When we allow our voice to be free to express the things we truly like, we encourage that inside of others to create their full expression of sex. It’s like singing with someone else, or sharing any other type of art – it is beauty and it is exchange. That’s what I mean by this energetic exchange. When I help people work through relieving pain, we give a voice to that which has no words. We use movement. You have to actually move your body and focus on the way you breathe if you want to expand who and how you are, because it really does change the way you feel. I know that these things sound like cheesy metaphors, but the beauty of life is that it comes from these simple things.

SA
Totally, and as someone who only really learned how to diaphragmatically breathe over the past year and a half, I’ve noticed my sexual interactions have been far more satisfying since being able to do that. That only really came as I started to work on myself and heal myself. What do you think is the effect on the psyche for folks who are having a lot of hot and heavy, fast, casual sex, and are also very broken or traumatized or wounded?

A
That’s an excellent question. There was a moment in culture where we were really promoting the rebellion against traditions by going out and being sexual with unfamiliar people as a new method of self-discovery. And to some extent, I think it works. But if we look at attachment behaviors, which is what I wrote my master’s thesis on, you notice differences in what the mind versus body interpret as love. Love has several definitions – it has different neurocircuitry depending on brain chemistry, whether it’s a long-term romantic relationship or a one-night stand. Part of the mind-body philosophy of inactivism really shows that, as you continue to move forward, you’re making your own history by having experiences that are molding who you are as a person. If you are engaging in a lot of one-night stands but you aren’t actually connecting to a person – or maybe you’re using them as distraction or self-validation – then this can start to define you in a way that feels like you’re always needing to fall in love.

However, if you bring variety and sincerity into your relationships, you don’t have to sacrifice the intimacy or connection for hot, steamy sex. There are so many ways you can use this energy between two people to inspire creativity to carry into your work life or, whatever it may be that you’re wanting to achieve: your goals, your endeavors, your dreams. In this way, sex becomes a meditation. I think this is a very powerful way of viewing sex between two people, especially nowadays where we are very compressed in locked down spaces. We need to do something with the energy that’s created both between and within us. The more we can come together and actually hone in on our individual intentions and drives, the more we can support each other – psychologically, relationally, and sexually. For those in lockdown together, real intimacy will help you transform mere coexistence into a co-creative force. I think that’s something that’s quite interesting for this age today, where it’s not just about making children anymore or passing on bloodlines.

SA
I want to come to the topic of self-consent, which is what we initially wanted to discuss. What is self-consent? How can we build a sexual practice that centers and pays attention to self-consent and how can we build towards that?

A
Well, I think there is a large history of sexual non consent. The interesting part requires actually drawing out, what is healthy consent and what does it look like in a way that is online (being present)? And what I mean is that we typically think of consent as a yes/no mental answer that we make. Someone asks you for something, you think about it, you weigh the options, and then you choose. That can work to a certain extent, but we tend to do it by overriding our bodies.

One of the things that we start off with at Kama, which is essential, is this idea of asking your own body for permission and having your body answer to you, consensually. And this isn’t something that anyone else is really talking about. Because consent is normally a talking exercise, typically with another person. The act of sex is supposed to be our most communicative and social act that we do as people. But it’s also our most information-poor act, because it’s during sex that we tend to shut ourselves off – we don’t speak, or we feel the need to perform one way or another. Sometimes we don’t even make eye contact. In the case of one-night stands, the act of facing each other and making eye contact very often just goes away. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this vision of sex, but if you are not truly communicating, then it can become very difficult to determine consent, especially beforehand. Consent has to be a decision that’s made before something happens, to define what you want out of a future act. And that’s a pretty scary decision to make. So it’s good to ask yourself, “What is my consent, really? What does it look like? How does my body look when it goes into a yes? How does my body look when it goes into a no?”

SA
Can you walk us through an exercise that can help us visualize our body’s consent?

A
Sure. So let’s take it from a very basic standpoint, like when an infant wants to protect itself, it goes into a fetal position, right? It means covering up the vital organs, our most important parts of our body. This is really no different than what we do when someone is approaching to touch us. And if we’re not ready to be touched, we start to cover our front or throat, chest, or groin, these areas. Whereas when we want somewhere to be touched, we start to literally open up. It’s in our English language – we say we are closed off to something or open to something. So the more we can answer from a position of what my body wants or feels like, the more quickly we get down to our true yes or no.

We can even start to change our own languages to remind us to focus on feeling more. There are so many clues to our true yes and no in the words we choose to say. “I think” versus “I feel.” If someone asked you, “Is it okay if I kiss you?” and you said “I think so.” What is it that you genuinely feel? Do you feel your body opening outwards or are you curling in towards yourself? And if you don’t go in or freeze or push, that’s your strongest no. Your biggest yes would probably be to eagerly grab the person and pull them in. So if you’re not opening out, if you’re not feeling like pulling that person in, or if you simply have no body reaction at all, then you likely need to reexamine your body’s answer.

If, for instance, you’ve faced a traumatic experience, your body may still be locked into the trauma. The more that you can become aware of how your body wants to react, or the more that your partner can become aware of that, then you can get closer to an authentic yes. And as opposed to signing a contract, it’s important to remember that consent is something we should continue to watch and do throughout all sexual experiences. Sometimes, we change our minds halfway through, and this is extremely important. 

SA
What are some cultural miscommunications that have made dialogue and consent during sex so difficult and complicated? 

A
Essentially, it comes down to being in a very information poor experience where, if we’re following the porn example of sex, one person is sort of lying still, while the other person is banging into them. There really isn’t much communication that’s happening there. But we can learn to communicate in time with our physical selves, to actually open or close our bodies off. There’s this whole space of ‘maybe’ during sex, where you’re still feeling into the moment, deciding where you want it to go. Maybe you think, “Alright that was fun, but okay no, that doesn’t feel good anymore.” But when it comes to sex, it’s not just a mental decision upstairs, which is what we try to always do with words. Embodied consent asks, what does your body have to say? What is the direction or intention behind each touch? Just that switch in a relationship dynamic can be very refreshing, and it can also create more balance. The Wheel of Consent is something I think couples should take a look at, to help create a space for openness and determine who each touch is really for.

Society has an unfairly gendered script, that men typically are “touching for their desires,” so when they perform a sexual action, it’s really for them. Then you have the other side which says that women allow touch to be done to them, or in other words, the woman’s pleasure exists for the other. Now you can have scenarios where that can be a highly erotic type of interaction, where one person just wants to surrender and have their partner take them and they’re going to allow, but if that’s the only interaction happening, that’s usually not going to lead towards a nurturing connection. Aside from the problems of it being a dangerously gendered script and that there are now and have always been so many unrepresented dynamics in-between, we still need to reverse that script for “givers” and “receivers,” which is the language we prefer to use at Kama. For instance, we’re hosting a number of workshops for couples this month to look at how we can all flip that script. We’re going to ask the person who’s most frequently the active “giver” – or person doing the giving – to give for the entire sake of their partner’s pleasure. In other words, it means having the giver ask the receiver, “Hey, how would you like me to touch you?” or even the other way around, which is having the person who’s typically receiving become the person that’s taking, in which case, the giver would ask you, “How would you like to touch me?

Once you understand consent within each individual touch, there is so much pleasure afterwards in connecting with breath, movement, voice, and all these other different body mechanisms. This month with Kama, we’re focusing on this theme of “Fuck in February,” like if people can’t be productive, let’s encourage everyone to fuck correctly. And what we mean by it is to actually learn to become expressive with one’s body, in whichever way you choose for it to come out. It’s about rawness – not about going to war with one another. In fact, our bodies complement one another and this synergy can result in something greater than the traditional turn-taking.

SA
Right, it’s like a collaboration. And I love that because it’s coming back to this idea of a sacred reciprocity, where your flourishing is my flourishing and all flourishing is mutual. 

How can people with somatic complications, who are in new partnerships, begin to process and articulate what they’re feeling in their bodies? Is it more an act that they should try and center with themselves before they come to the partnership sexually? Or can they make space for that when it’s starting to get into the groove, the first few times with their partners? How do we make space for that?

A
I mean, I would say the standard answer is that one starts off with themselves. However, once one has mastered the self, and then and then you go into relation, everything in some ways, has to be learned and new. And then for other people, they’ve learned a little bit more in relation. And then at some point, they need to visit things back inside themselves. But the biggest thing I would say, is to start to really create some somatic (bodily) awareness. And the things that we focus on at Kama is having an interoceptive ability, which is the ability to feel yourself sensationally from the inside. Simple things like feeling and holding your hand on your heartbeat helps with body dysmorphia. That’s pretty incredible. Something that simple can have that amount of impact. What happens when we then put our hands on the hearts of our partners? What happens when we bring that presence to the genitals with touch, whether we’re doing that with ourselves or with our partner. Giving our body the freedom to actually move, and movement is freedom. When we can move through experiences, we are free to actually experience them in all these different positions, of which we’ll find some feel very good, some feel very compromising. But by moving, we start to become unstuck. At the essence, as much as you explore in, also be exploring out. Doing these types of exercises where one is really becoming aware of your own breath or movement, then taking that same level of awareness with another person can really bring a lot of synchronicity between the two of you. When you build that type of bodily rapport, a lot of the stuff from the past gets eliminated.

I think we can fall into a narrow path sometimes with trauma work where we spend all our time revisiting the past and acknowledging its existence. Although to truly become alive again, you have to reconnect back to life – reconnect back to the erotic and creative life force. This type of reconnection isn’t something we can do just through talk therapy, but instead by coming into touch with these places where we carry either psychological or even physical scarring. You have to remember the mind and body are really the same. When we bring our own love and attention to both, there is a huge shift that happens. And then when we share that love and attention with another person, the body can rediscover pleasure to its fullest extent. Trauma especially can be triggered spontaneously out of nowhere, but if you find that container of love and support, you’d be surprised how fast you can regain your confidence. I mean, it can seem quite miraculous, but I think that just speaks to how our bodies can adapt to both the good, as well as the bad.

SA
Incredible. Thank you Aaron. What are the couple of things that are helping you stay grounded during this time? 

A
Hm, I’ve been big on juicing for quite some time. I think juicing has probably been the single largest factor for myself not getting sick when the seasons shift. The other thing is remaining physically active in one way or another. I always try to have a healthy sexual practice, but I’m currently working away from my wife, so it is much more of a solo, meditative practice at this time. 

Author, bodyworker, and sex coach, Aaron Michael teaches individuals and couples how to optimize their sex lives. With a speciality in cognitive science, he brings together neuroscience, psychology, and cutting edge practices to create simple, daily practices to optimise your sex life. Aaron is a trained instructor in breathwork, bodywork, dearmoring, and embodied sexual pleasure. He is passionate about providing an avant-garde sex education and solutions that go beyond traditional talk therapy. Aaron is now working together with new sexual wellness company Kama as their in-house sex coach and educator, bringing his knowledge of sexual healing into the cultural spotlight of pleasure. See a list of Kama’s upcoming workshops here.

The Body as a Site of Pain and Solution with Abdul-Rehman Issa

SA
Abdul, It’s so good to be here with you. Where are you in the world? Can you describe the current state of your mind, body and spirit for me?

A
It is an incredible honor to be in community with you as we can communicate across the world. I am currently in Long Beach, California: home of Snoop Dogg and Sublime. The current state of my mind, body and spirit, I would say, are in flux. I am trying to stay grounded, but we are in such a time of great transition and upheaval, that I would be lying if I said that I am where I would like to be in my mind, body, and spirit. My mind is struggling to make sense of the world we find ourselves in, and the very real thoughts, images, and emotions that swirl up around uncertainty. My body is home to where I want to live. I want to live my life, no in my mind, but in my heartspace. That ties into my spirit, I think. My spirit is always there, but I’m not always connected to it in a grounded way. That’s a great question!

SA
Oh, I so resonate with the yearning to be grounded in a time of rapid change. 

How has your practice of Breathwork supported you during this unprecedented time, and can you tell me a little bit about how you arrived at this practice?

A
Breathwork has been a pillar of my grounding and the closest connection to spirit I can find, in any sort of a somatic experience. Breathwork brings me into myself in a way that lets me feel as though I am connected to everyone and everything on this planet. It helps remove the trappings that separate us as peoples, by placing me into a space of simply being a human being, and seeing all others as human beings, without filters or qualifiers. 

How I got here is a story. About 5 years ago, into my late 30’s, I developed OCD. My particular OCD focuses around obsessive intrusive thoughts that greatly disturb me. When the OCD is active these thoughts race through my mind all day long and impact my ability to be the person I want to be in the world. As this mental health challenge unfolded, I out of desperation, self-medicated with illicit substances, pharmaceuticals, and whatever else I could find. This dark chapter in my life led me through hospitalizations, profound fear, and ended in a holistic, spiritual recovery program that saved my life, and introduced me to Breathwork. At this recovery center, my first week there, I was thrown into a Breathwork session. This session was the first time that I had felt a spiritual connection in decades. Through simply utilizing my breath and having a teacher guide me through the experience, I lost sight of all of the doubts, fears, and anxieties that plagued me. I felt (and I want to credit my friend Jared for this) that in my body, I had a sense of home, which is being safe, known, and loved. Realizing that I could feel this way and really be back in touch with who I was at my core, propelled me into the holistic healing space. I devoured literature and training on Breathwork, Reiki, EFT, and Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing. I am at my best, I am self-actualizing, when I am in the service of helping others self-actualize and heal. I am a big proponent of Abraham Maslow’s work on Hierarchy of Needs. It’s a foundational part of the pedagogy I employ as a school principal, and Maslow, before he died, revised his hierarchy of needs and posited that the highest form of being you could attain, was called “transcendence”. Transcendence is our self-actualization through helping others self-actualize. I know I meandered a bit, but hopefully I tied that back at the end. I can’t help nerding out on Maslow. 🙂

SA
We encourage nerding out in every capacity! What a profound journey you’ve been on, Abdul. And what a commitment you have to elevating collective consciousness – both as a principal and as a healing practitioner. 

I myself only began conscious breathing a year and a half ago after I began my healing journey. Understanding how my CPTSD had frozen trauma within me resulting in shallow breathing, diaphragmatic breath was incredibly transformative in allowing me to both call my spirit back to my body and do the uncomfortable work of healing my wounds. A lot of my healing is around ancestral dysfunctions and has focused directly on my mother wound. How is Breathwork a vehicle towards healing ancestral and racial trauma?

A
As you illuminated, the deep trauma that we hold, our ancestral trauma, the complex PTSD of living in the age of COVID, or being a minority in such a racialized oppressive system where Black and Brown people are easily oppressed, is all locked in our body! The shallow breathing, the pain in our back, there are countless symptoms that we notice during the day. I myself carry a very deep father wound. I lost my father when I was 6. Breathwork is a way for us to move the “stuck” energy in our body that has locked us into unhealthy postures and breathing patterns, by pushing us into the depths of what an original, authentic, conscious breath would be. In doing this, we unfreeze some of the trauma locked in our body. The chemicals that regulate stress levels in our brain change. And we can, with the right guidance, revisit the pain of our racialized ancestral trauma and reprocess it. For me, and I’m gonna nerd out again, for sec: this is very similar to the new gold standard of trauma psychological modalities, which is EMDR. This uses the somatic practice with the eyes and the body to reprocess and refile trauma in the appropriate place. Our bodies are where the pain is, but they are also where the solution lies. 

SA
Do you think there needs to be greater education around the way the body holds trauma and how neural pathways are formed and can be rewired? 

A
Absolutely! I think it has to be taught in our schools. We focus so much on content areas, that we’ve overlooked the need to educate a generation of people as to how to live in their bodies, and how to navigate a complex and changing world! In my practice at my school, I imbed, breathwork, mindfulness, and other tools that I’ve picked up, as part of weekly professional development with my staff. These tools allow my staff to then use them with students and families, so that the community at large can have more exposure to this healing. I feel as though we are moving in the right direction. I know many other school leaders who are moving down this path. But I think that the way to really move this forward is to teach these strategies at teacher and school leader education programs so that they know that these are a foundation to their service. 

SA
Teaching mindfulness to children is such a simple, yet revolutionary concept. I remember, in third grade, my teacher would play guided meditations for our class in between subjects. When I began healing, I came back to those moments in time as pivotal and necessary for me as a child who was experiencing domestic violence. Knowing these are strategies incorporated in schools today fills me with so much joy and hope.

How do you incorporate EFT into your practice? I’ve only recently become familiar with the practice of tapping and, admittedly, was initially skeptical. Can you talk me through how it works and what it does to release trauma and tension?

A
Absolutely. I use EFT in my group Breathwork sessions, at the end, as a kinesthetic way to plant positive beliefs about yourself, by tapping and speaking different mantras. This is much different than how EFT is used on an individual basis to address trauma. The EFT protocols are highly scripted, on an individual level, to allow the practitioner and the client to identify where in the body the hurt is stored, what it looks like, how old it is, what color it is. This again, is very similar to EMDR, where you work to come up with what the negative cognitions are that you believe about yourself, where they’re stored in the body, and then transitioning into what positive cognitions you want to have about yourself, and reintegrating those into the hurt places of your body through the tapping. 

I have had profound success when I have received EFT from very skilled practitioners. I would say I am definitely still learning my way through the EFT process, because there is a lot of nuance to how you read the body and help it readjust. 

SA
Can a practice of EFT be useful with children? Is there an age when this practice can or cannot be integrated into an overall practice of mindfulness – and if yes, what would a group session of EFT look like with a group of children?

A
That’s a very interesting question. I don’t believe there is an age limit as to when EFT could begin. I believe that so long as you have the emotional vocabulary to articulate what you are feeling, or have a skilled practitioner who can help you name it, you can EFT it up! 

That being said, I have never used EFT as the sole modality of a group session, especially not with children, but what I can see being done (and I think this would also work with our BIPOC groups when we meet), is allow the group to come up with negative cognitions, stereotypes, that are impacting them through their environment, through social media, and allow them to come up with the positive replacement cognitions they want to believe about themselves, and do believe about themselves at heart.  And now you gave me an idea to try out! 

SA
So very intriguing and exciting! How did you come to Reiki? Is incorporating Reiki into your practice as a community healer something that you do, or is Reiki also a modality that is reserved for individual sessions? 

A
I came to Reiki through a community wellness center in my city. I went to a sound meditation where Reiki was being performed on the participants, and it blew my mind! There is something profoundly healing about receiving loving touch. I then befriended the Reiki practitioner from that night and she became my mentor. There are people that do distance Reiki healing, but that’s not what I practice. Mine is all touch-based, which works in group and individual sessions but isn’t quite the same in the online environment. I have experimented with it and directed clients to touch and hold parts of their body during our sessions, but there’s something magical about getting it from somebody who is solely focused on your well-being, and I wish I could use Reiki more in my current practice. 

SA
The first time I went to see a somatic therapist in New York, I left the session with clarity, but also a little frustrated. I was thinking, ‘This is basically what a Reiki does, but glorified and more expensive.’ I know now that there are a lot of differences between the two offerings, but am also wading through some of the racial biases that exist within the field of somatics in terms of how a lot of these non Western practices are incorporated into the field. Do you think about the field of somatics as one that does maintain some sort of status quo in that it borrows a lot from other, non white practices?

A
Absolutely. I think the entire Western holistic healing movement has taken Eastern practices and repackaged them without acknowledging where they come from. We’re talking about indigenous practices that have been passed down from generation to generation, and passing them off as brand new Western inventions. The target audience has also been problematic. This movement has really catered to upper middle class white families. This is where the yoga studios and wellness centers are typically found, and there hasn’t been access to our BIPOC communities that really need access. That is a great observation, and one that we definitely need to explore more in depth as practitioners. 

SA
Yes, it’s our hope at Studio Ānanda that by really interrogating the foundations of these fields, we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us.

What are a few things that have kept you grounded during this time?

A
I love that question. I think having a sense of hope helps to ground me. It comes from all of the men, women and children that I work with that are continuously interrogating the systems of oppression that we live in, with an anti-racist lense. I’ve been reading a lot of Bettina Love and Gholdy Muhammed and these powerful Black women give me hope that even in the chaos of where we find ourselves, there are people doing the work, there are people dedicated to bringing the light into places where darkness has lived for far too long. There are people infusing their actions with audacious love. Also cheeseburgers and pizza! 

SA
Beautiful, thank you so much for sharing, Abdul. Do you have any last words you’d like to share before we wrap up?

A
Prinita thank you so much for this opportunity! I feel as though the questions and flow of the conversation allowed me to grow, better understand myself and find new ways to challenge myself to be better. As far as last words, we can’t often control the environment and situations we find ourselves in, but we can always control our response. We have a choice!! Choice is a powerful thing! IF we can choose only one thing, choose love all day, every day. 

Abdul-Rehman Issa is a career educator  (former special education teacher, current school administrator, MA in School Leadership, and prospective doctoral student), who also holds certifications in Breathwork, Reiki, and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), as well as Drum Circle Facilitator, Restorative Practices Trainer, and Restorative Circles Facilitator.  He is also a Somatic Experiencing (SE) Practitioner in Training.Abdul-Rehman is a career educator  (former special education teacher, current school administrator, MA in School Leadership, and prospective doctoral student), who also holds certifications in Breathwork, Reiki, and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), as well as Drum Circle Facilitator, Restorative Practices Trainer, and Restorative Circles Facilitator.  He is also a Somatic Experiencing (SE) Practitioner in Training.

The Ancestral Nervous System with Tada Hozumi

SA
Tada, How has your day been so far?

T
Strange, as usual. 

SA
I feel as if, over the past year and a half, the days for me have also been getting more bizarre. Always running into awkward coincidences and feel like we are all trapped in a weird parallel universe. How do you ground yourself amongst all the strangeness? 

T
Gosh well, I don’t know if I do. I’m taking a moment right now though.

SA
I hope this conversation might be some sort of meditation. 

T
Already is 🙂 

SA
I came to your work at the start of COVID last year, when I, for the first time in my life was completely alone. It was through isolation that I truly began my healing journey and one of my entry points was interrogating and exploring the field of somatics. I read My Grandmother’s Hands and then one day, through many YouTube rabbit holes, stumbled onto conversations you had presented. I was mind blown because for the first time, I had language to articulate my experience as someone who up until recently lived with extreme pelvic floor ‘dysfunction’ through vaginismus. What was your arrival into the ‘field’ of somatics like? 

T
Ah yes, I see.

Lemme see.

Well, first I want to welcome your whole self, your pelvic bowl and the generations of all pelvic bowls connected into great mother. She is annoyed with me because I don’t do that enough or haven’t.

I get a feeling of high lifting sensations in my brows, it’s probably a bit of grief, to say that somatics is really a lineage of work in which has a lot has been written out, especially the wisdom of women (in the widest definition). Even in my own study, there are limitations of my understanding, I am finding, more and more. Just wanted to note that.

‘Her’ body is so much more sensitive to the subtle energetic system. So let’s just honor that.

I met somatics on the dancefloor, as she presented herself as rhythm. I was a club kind, going out to these parties that played jazz (in the widest sense) on vinyl in the late 90s and early 2000s. I saw people dancing in circles – in womb space, Hara space – now as I understand.

So I met somatics there. I’m inclined to say more but I feel like it would get ‘heady’ and I’m feeling like leaving a space here. Opening and pausing. This is my training at the moment. Finding pleasure in this open space even though it feels ‘bad’ haha.

SA
Thanks for nourishing that openness. 

The dance floor, for me, is truly one of the safest places I found to come back to my body. I feel most aligned with my mind, body and spirit when I am dancing. 

T
Well, something I might say, quickly, as a nod, that I think safety isn’t safe. At least this is my attitude to somatics more and more. For example, this track, Everybody Dance, undoubtedly brought SO MUCH healing, especially to queer black and brown folk. But did anybody know about the *drop* that would happen after this era? Not all of it is the fault of anybody, but it’s part of a larger cultural up and down movement and that isn’t entirely safe. 

SA
Right – yes. 

T
Like the blessed DJ Larry Levan, tell ‘you’ that you would have kundalini experience that will rock you to your core and change your life forever? Some don’t ‘survive’ this passage. In some ways he ‘knew’ that would happen. And he also succumbed. 

SA
I understand, I’m reflecting now about my time on dance floors, although it’s been a while, and my definition of ‘safety’ includes being under the influence of some substance. Which at that current time was the only way I could feel in my body. Which, can become unsafe very quickly. 

T
Yes. Exactly. And something about not sanitizing that feels very essential. Especially when we are engaging in embodiment forms that people have survived intense oppression through. I can feel that very strong in my sacrum as I write that.

But also, is it safe when people channel their intensity towards …hmm, I’m gonna pause here.

I can feel the jagged edges.

SA
It does feel a bit prickly. I’ve been dancing a lot at home lately, but I find the only way I can feel safe to fully unwind is if I am completely alone without disturbance from my housemates. Otherwise, and this is the addictive tendencies in me, I turn to marijuana or alcohol. 

T
I love a bit of ceremony also haha.

SA
Totally – I think, I’m still navigating the shame that comes with using a substance to completely release. 

T
That’s really interesting, the shame. I think of our ancestors. Undoubtedly they disinhibited through these substances to sacred ‘altered’ states.

SA
Right.

T
Some of it is I think, letting the ancestors have their jollies. Pouring alcohol for them. Leaving marijuana for them. So they don’t need to do it all through your nervous system. And of course, you may still channel. I mean tbh I’m also repatterning a lot of my relationship to sensate pleasure through developing a better ability to channel (that is open up your nervous system to the ancestors and also they already are all the time), experience, and then disentangle/integrate.

My knowledge here though is weak. I’m being humbled. My colleagues such as Dare Sohei and Larissa Kaul understand this way better.

SA
I’m learning so much already!! Do you think it is irresponsible for folks who are trying to heal, trying to regulate their nervous system, to also maintain a relationship with alcohol/marijuana, or is it just about cultivating an intentional one?

T
This is so confusing right? Because what is ‘healing’. We are in the first time in thousands of years that ‘we’ can engage in freedom of sex, alchohol and drugs. So is healing the thousands of years of pain coming to the surface and transmuting that beautifully? Or is it being able to maintain stable relationships? Is it chaos or tranquil magick?


I don’t really know. For some moments of life clearly that chaos is it. And then in others, its tranquility. And things that stimulate us they fit into all of that.

I know less and less.

SA
No one size fits all. I’m reminded of when I returned to Sydney after 3 years away from my family. My mother found my cigarettes and asked me if I was an ‘addict’ and it triggered me. 

T
Well, addiction is so many things. But yeah, a lot of shame around labels.

SA
Right, and after processing I thought, the cigarettes soothe me in a way that my mother could not.. Hahah. And that was such an awkward, uncomfortable realisation to come to. 

T
Hahaha. Well maybe there is a great dark mother in the smoke that needs to be worshipped. Given space.

I mean I think it’s real that you and I’s generation are in that spot of healing millenia of stuck trauma and know that is what we are doing. It’s just the beginning. And we have to be a lot more decent to each other while we are doing that. Have a sense of humor. Not be so fragile.

SA
Humour is something that I am definitely trying to incorporate into my journey. Holding the contradictions as divinely hilarious instead of frustrating and exhausting. Do you think, as non-white people, we sometimes lose the ability to find those moments of humour throughout our journey. 

T
Well I am right now reading this very weird passage (don’t judge me).

“When you enter a certain octave of this transcendence to time and space you enter into what Yeshua referred to as “love.” This love is impersonal. It is not romantic in the sense that most people think of it. It is not erotic attraction. It is a resonance that holds all existence in one interrelated vibration, and this vibration is all-inclusive.

This state of consciousness is very strange, for when you are in the vibrational state of impersonal love you can easily hold conflicting opposites together.

They are seemingly resolved in the serenity of this vibration called love. But at the same time there are other perceptions and other realities co-existing with this vibrational state.

My personal difficulty with the concept of “oneness,” as it is used in the New Age, has to do with a lack of boundaries, a lack of accountability and personal responsibility. It is also a nesting place, ironically, for some of the darkest shadow material of humanity.

Those who leap frog into the idea of oneness, enter a tenuous path if they conclude that at a higher level of being we are all one and there is no differentiation. My reason for saying this has to do with the edges of vibrational states.

The idea of  “oneness” is being used as a hypnotic vehicle by some people to sidestep the complexity of existence. Some of these people believe that if we are all one then there is no need to do anything, and, in my belief, this is a sad error.”

An excerpt channeled by a white guy of Mary Magdalen LOL. So that’s my sense of humor. 

And yeah, I think we do. In any place of marginalization we lose humor. On a simple level, we don’t understand we’re often going to be triggered into our ancestral stuff with our ‘oppressors’. And we are ALL each other’s oppressors, ancestrally. So it is a bit of shit show lol.

So when we are exploring these millenia of traumas in our bodies, in close quarters with each other, we just have to recognize that hmm … Larissa told me once, the issue is basically as if the ancestors don’t exist and THEY DO. We have to change our ways of being with each other under the premise that ancestors are real, ghosts are real, spirits are real, … there is a big  nervous system that isn’t ‘ours’ that is influencing our lives so deeply.

SA
I needed to hear that. That puts so many of the pieces of the puzzle together for me navigating yoga as a practice rooted in caste and now in the west.

T
I mean the caste system is basically cultural kundalini syndrome with energy completely getting lodged in ‘high vibes’ and power getting concentrated in these heavenly human beings. So when you export that spiritual practice without taking that in consideration, you’re going to maintain the caste system in different ways. It actually shows the dangers of spiritual practice in a way on a cultural scale – it’s the same everywhere in the world.

SA
Right… the exportation of the status quo and spiritual hierarchy. So strange. What’s it going to take for society or modern culture to acknowledge the existence of our ancestors beyond a trendy slogan printed on a tshirt ‘I am my ancestors wildest dreams’ etc? 

T
Haha I dunno. My colleague Dare talks about animism being pre-religion. They are mixed-race so they have something I think where they are necessarily both futuristic hybrid and also proto all templates. If we go to the pre-religion place, we have a LOT of freedom. So you can stay connected to the more recent ancestors with a built template of culture but also filter down to the essential building blocks.

SA
So much space has been created in your articulation above!! And so much hope.. Thank you, Tada! Before we end, can you tell me a couple rituals that have been keeping you going and grounded over the past year? 

T
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUMuDWDVd20 

So yes, I was wondering, what you, think of the above music?

SA
This is one of my favourite tracks, this Coltrane tune. I think all the music you’ve shared above in some way or another teleport me to a different planet and also provide some sort of meditation.. 

T
I’ve been super ungrounded LOL. I dunno, keep seeing my belly. Be willing to be weirder. Stabilizing in destabilization. Allowing the chaos to be and also not get so ashamed. It’s when our shame catches us and dissociates us, we get untethered. So less shame. I’ve been going through a lot the last few years, in my professional and personal life, if you haven’t been aware.

And it’s been fighting through that. 

I think re: the Coltrane tune its like that weird ancestral mixing place? I dunno. That’s how I feel about the world. There are currents underneath the status quo, shiny, cultural mixing for social capital thing. Something that is dirty, funky, and you can feel the ancestors having a good old nasty time haha.

That you can move through the destabilizing times and still be so generous with your insight and knowledge and time is super moving. 

SA
I agree, the Coltrane track really reminds me of some futuristic fusion that happened in the past between our ancestors. 

I feel the same with this track.

T
Yeah, thank you. I feel your generosity as well. Many blessings. And haha this album cover.

From a cultural appropriation perspective you’re like wow is this OK lol. And well, there is just that liminal queer place I hope we get less fragile about. Where we can feel the real.

Tada Hozumi offers coaching and consulting work, as well as workshops based on a practice they refer to as cultural somatics.

Tada’s work draws upon three main lineages:

  • ‘Western’ healing modalities such as expressive arts therapy (which I am certified in), somatic therapy, and dance movement therapy
  • Ancestral Asian/Japanese somatics
  • Afro-diasporic popular dance, specifically ‘popping’.

Rhythm Connection with Jay Daniel

SA
I’m really so grateful to be sharing this space with you today. How are you feeling? Can you describe your mind/body/spirit today?

J
I’m feeling great 🙂 the weather is opening back up. & I’ve been in a really creative headspace which is good.

I’m glad you hit me up about this because I’ve been wanting to discuss these types of topics.

But things are really aligning & I’m just grateful 🙂

SA
Same, I’m happy we synced up in this way & I’m looking forward to digging into some of the ideas I’ve been thinking around sound as a tool for spirit. 

When I re-heard Paradise Valley a few months ago after returning back to Sydney, it instantly transported me back to spring mornings in BedStuy. I had such a visceral reaction to hearing that track, it reminded me of walking down Marcy Ave and meeting loved ones for a coffee in the park. I think it was a moment of intense emotional and spiritual connection, kind of like, I was calling my spirit back to my body from where I left her in BedStuy. What do you think about audio and sound as a way to connect to spirit?

J
I love hearing people’s experiences with music that I made, because it lets me know that what I put into it is working. I think from a recording standpoint, music becomes visceral when you realize that you’re capturing the essence of a moment in time. I have had times with music that I haven’t even released yet, when I listen to it I remember where I was coming from & what I felt. I think the fulfillment you get from creating is like no other & it really transmutes when others feel something similar from it.

SA
Do you have a particular spiritual process around music making you can talk me through? Do you incorporate rituals or practices into how you make music? Is it always intentional in that way?

J
Well for one, I have a lot of plants in my studio. So whenever I come in there, I immediately feel their energy lol. They’re big so it kind of feels like their studio as well. I like to light incense & burn sage but I think just the plants being here is such a vibe & makes it so much easier to create. It kind of separates me from the rest of the world. 

SA
Do you think the end product of what you make would be different if you didn’t have that connection to nature via your plants? 

J
Yeah definitely, plants are a reminder to us that we should take our time. And be patient, and that is also very imperative in music. If I wasn’t as connected to them I think I would feel some of the same stress I feel outside of the studio while I’m making music. But because my space is kind of consecrated, it makes it easier to discern between profane time & sacred time.

SA
I love to think about the way the nature we are surrounded by, their energies get transmuted into our creative practices. I believe plants, flora, fauna have and hold spirits that have been here before us and it’s really, as you say, such a sacred way to create.

J
Even the way the sun shines affects our mood. If it’s overcast one day, you’re gonna feel it. We’re definitely connected in that way, that we both need sunlight & water to sustain us.

SA
Right, we live in this divinely interconnected ecosystem where all flourishing is mutual in that way. Recently I’ve been thinking about how ancestrally, song and chant were a form of prayer, since the beginning of time. I’ve found that when I am listening more closely to God and my own spirit, the music I listen to is reflective of this. Less lyrical, more rhythmic and vibrational sounds. What do you think about audio as a transmission and communication from both God and ancestors? 

J
Rhythm & melody animate the spirit, to grieve or to praise. Certain tones evoke certain emotions. To express our emotions and be aware of them is such a big part of our livelihood. When we deny our emotions we deny a certain part of ourselves, and in turn our spirit.

Lately I’ve been watching footage of early jazz musicians on youtube, & everytime I watch it feels like a transmission from the past. You can feel the energy & intent in what they were doing.

SA
Yes!! Just recalling our brief convo yesterday on cosmic jazz, and here I’m specifically thinking about Alice Coltrane, and how the sounds she was creating in records like Ptah The El Daoud were like this ancestral fusion – for me, that’s not only a glimpse of the past but also a blueprint of how we can all build together, intentionally in the future. Have you found that your spiritual evolution has gone hand in hand with your commitment to your practice as a musician?

J
Definitely!! I think this past year alone, not being on the road. Being at home in solitude, I can finally practice the piano. I haven’t played drums this often since 08. Really the drums have been my saving grace all my life. So it makes sense that I’d have all this downtime to get back in tune with that part of me. It goes back to the thing about making time sacred, it’s very hard to do when you’re always on the go. I haven’t been able to sit & make an album without going on the road to DJ since 2013. Which is crazy to me, because like how lol. You can’t start a book then keep leaving and expect the narrative to not change you know.

And spiritually, just being away from the nightlife has been so gratifying. I know there’s nothing there for me. I’m content where I’m at.

SA
That’s a very profound realization to come to as a musician. I feel the lesson of the past year has been slowness, and nurturing the isolation despite all the catastrophe that has unfolded, but nurturing the ways that we’ve been able to see ourselves and others like never before. What has music shown you about yourself?

J
Just listening to songs I haven’t heard since high school, now with a more keen ear. It’s like revisiting times in my life when I may not have been happy & telling myself it will be okay. And again, just how important human emotion is. We can’t show each other the love we used to be able to, so we have to find ways to love ourselves & new ways to love each other.

SA
Do you think synchronicity through sound can shape the way we interact with each other on a communal level? Can a spiritual connection through sound be a gateway to collective liberation? It’s obvious that religious structures use music as a way to bring people together, but pushing past that framework, do you think that can sound usher a collective awakening?

J
I think so. It comes down to the narrative behind your music. The purpose behind the music is what people gravitate towards. So basically it’s up to the musician to take people there. You have to be there already or on the path at least.

SA
Right, and that’s the responsibility that comes with tapping into and uncovering your purpose as an artist. I kind of want to go back to what you said earlier about nightlife not being as gratifying anymore. Can you speak more to that? I’ve personally found that my earliest connection with community has been on dancefloors – but, recently I was doing an interview where I was speaking about how I felt safest in my body when I am on dancefloors. Tada Hozumi, who I was interviewing, asked me to question that safety because, in reality, I also had to rely on substances to get to that level of safety. Are dancefloors still a gratifying space for you + what makes you steer away from nightlife?

J
I think from a DJ’s standpoint, dancefloors can be liberating, but all in all the culture of nightlighte promotes disorder. You know, drunk, sloppy lol. These are the things I think of when I think of clubs  because that has been my experience, especially in Europe. I just don’t feel at home in clubs because it’s not my space. I’m triggered just thinking about it lol.

SA
I hear you & it’s truly horrible how in electronic spaces especially, the way non Black folks have both profited off Black culture & take up unrequited space. 

I’m glad that you’ve been able to cultivate a more safe and nourishing environment for yourself where it sounds like, your practice has been able to evolve further through these realizations. What have been some ways you’ve been able to ground during this time? 

J
Yeah, it just feels weird playing Black music in Europe. And I was thinking about what you said about relying on substances to feel safe, it took me a second to process what you meant by that. But that’s another reason I don’t like nightlife. I have been reading a lot, listening to weekly youtube videos on astrology. I have been drinking chai with lion mane & ashwagandha every morning. That’s definitely been keeping my spirits up.

SA
I feel like as we’re entering the Age of Aquarius, more people (hopefully) are coming to understand the importance of not dissociating through substances + creating more healing, sober spaces to grow in. It sounds like you’ve found some really transformative modes to heal and I’m looking forward to seeing/hearing all that comes out of this abundant time for you! Do you have anything you want to add as we come to an end?

J
Thank you again for sharing this space with me, my next album will be out within the next two months!! 

Jay Daniel is an electronic musician, producer, and selector from Detroit, Michigan, United States

Finding the Cure for Pain in the Pain with Shadi Sankary

SA
Hi Shadi, are you keeping well?

S
Hi Prinita – thank you, I am! I feel I am at new heights of my wellbeing these days. 

SA
If you were to describe your spirit using your five senses, what would it sound, taste, look, smell, feel like?

S
What a beautiful question. My spirit would sound like a Ney (middle eastern flute) played softly at dawn and taste like whichever earth i happen to be standing on; it would look like my favourite golden hour of the Sun setting, and smell like Sandalwood. It would feel like the cloth of a hot air balloon..flying over the hills of Cappadocia in Turkey! 

SA
Where in the world are you located?

S
I live on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. With my gentle steps on this earth, I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging, and acknowledge that my modern privilege was built upon the injustices of colonisation that disrupted their original existence on this land. 

SA
What has your experience living in Australia been like?

S
I first came to Australia in 2004 having grown up in Tripoli, Lebanon – My parents migrated here in the late 1970’s but eventually settled back in Lebanon just before my brother and I were born a decade later. I was eighteen years old and knew that I had some important self-discovery to do – I also sensed that the relocation would give space for a slightly bruised adolescent in me to breathe. Like millions before me I quickly came head to head with ‘assimilation’. My identity was suddenly also in the hands of the communities I gravitated towards and cherished: The middle eastern communities of Western Sydney, the student activist bodies on my university campus, and the Queer communities of Sydney with their loving embrace. 

But ultimately, my experience of living in Australia will always be centred around a daily gravitational pull to remember, acknowledge, respect, and cherish the traditional owners of this land, past, present and emerging. 

SA
What is Avicenna as a massage therapy and how did you arrive at it as a practitioner?

S
Avicenna or Ibn-Sina (980-1037) was a Persian Polymath who gained an important position in the medical world for centuries to come with his five-volume encyclopaedia, ‘The Canon of Medicine’. It was subsequently referred to as the Holy book of Medicine in the Western world, and includes in its section on ‘Preservation of Health’, information on 8 types of massage techniques and their effects and techniques. Ibn-Sina systematized the medical information gathered from dispersed Ancient Greek sources, and updated them with his own observations and practice. 

On the very first day of anyone’s Certificate IV in Massage Therapy – in the first chapter of their handbook, they will read of Avicenna and the earliest documented writings on massage therapy in China dating back 3000 years. For me, Ibn-Sina had been part of my psyche since childhood, along with many other guides from that time, philosophers and poets and scientists whose names I admired so much growing up such as Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), Al- Farabi and Jalaludin Rumi. Yet still, I needed the reminder on that day, and his name in that book instantly re-lit a fire that I now get to gratefully watch burn against each evening’s sky. 

SA
For some, massage therapy is a way to relax and work out minor aches and pains, for others, it can mean massive psychological breakthroughs and relief from chronic pain. How does massage therapy allow for the release of trauma blocks?

S
What motivates me the most in my massage therapy practice at the moment, is the notion explored so long ago by Avicenna in his work – describing that massage involves the evacuation of unnecessary substances from the body – which had in turn corresponded to explanations he had learnt in Ancient Greek medicine. Much like Avicenna,  I feel I have recently arrived at a junction where a new level of lived understanding awaited to be explored. What excites me at this junction now, is that the touch that our hands are capable of, allows therapists to gently penetrate through the many layers of our existence, starting with the most elemental and exposed of all – the skin – and travelling to the most sensitive, and deep, and personal. 

I’m grateful to now have my own opportunity to explore my belief that the release of trauma blocks is much like that journey of the hands across the skin. 

I often hide behind poems and I have learnt to love that about myself, haha – they always seem to come to my rescue. Rumi, in particular : “The tambourine begs, Touch my skin so I can be myself. Let me feel you enter each limb bone by bone, that what died last night can be whole today” 

SA
How have you seen massage therapy benefit some of your clients with deep seated traumas?

S
That is a question and a conversation that I hope to be having for many years to come, for the benefit of all of us. Let’s keep this conversation going forever Prinita : ) 

On a personal level, I feel I am now at a junction where my ‘my old work on myself’ and ‘my new work on myself’ have a playground where they can dance safely. I now see Rumi’s verse ‘The cure for pain is in the pain’ in a shinier light. 

Professionally speaking, I view myself now as an ’emerging practitioner’ therefore I generally feel a certain prematurity in vocalising my observations perhaps. But I already sense that in this new level of understanding, my own healing has the potential to become my clients’ healing-  and theirs, my own. 

SA
Do you believe western medicine could benefit from a more holistic approach to therapy?

S
One of the most exciting aspects of becoming a massage therapist for me was studying Anatomy and Physiology. It felt like a breakthrough on many levels, and I imagined that on a much larger scale, the process of anyone becoming a doctor would feel similar, or as exciting, as my discovery that all of the structures of our modern medicine are built on ancient foundations that no one can really forget. That would literally be dangerous! If all electricity was to go out in any city tomorrow, the doctors and nurses who still remember their traditional intervention and treatment methods will be the superheroes. And as our world is showing us at every beat, we need our superheroes strong now more than ever, and we need all of us to remember how to be healthy in a wholesome way. 

Western medicine should not be waiting for patients to have to take their own initiatives to integrate natural therapies into their treatment plans.

SA
What are a couple of your go-to grounding practices?

S
As a dancer I will always find a lot of grounding at the Centre of my dance. The whirling meditation at the heart of my dance practice asks me to connect with my body’s centre in every moment and to stay there  – However fast or strong the gravitational pull of the movement gets, the head is unaware of the feet, and the feet are unaware of the head. ‘ Neither cares, they keep turning…’ 

Another important grounding practice for me as a massage therapist is my daily routine of self care – it spans the whole day, much like my best companion ( Joey, my red heeler puppy ) , and involves a variety of little practices and rituals in and around my therapy space and the home.. I also spend a significant amount of my time in water ( in the shower, bath or Ocean) self-massaging different parts of my body. 

It’s also grounding for me to share my lived knowledge and experience during the sessions with my clients, and to learn from their experiences and bodies.  I hope there will always continue to be a sense of shared inspiration between us as a result, and I hope to nurture that in my practice for many years to come. 

Also, I chase the Sun! ‘Shams’, the Sun, is my fuel…… : ) 

Shadi Sankary is a dancer, visual artist and massage therapist living and working on Gadigal land. His work explores the infinitely spiralling conversations between the human body and its environments: molecular, earthly and intergalactic.