Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

Having booked my trip to Denver back in January of this year, I had no idea what amount of personal and psychological shift would occur during my most recent journey in Costa Rica. Having been in twenty-two countries, on a quest to find myself, and educated myself on the world in which I live, getting ready to return to the States, I already had trepidation about going. It’s a country – and culture – that I chose to leave ten years ago. I considered canceling my trip (as plans on meeting both my mom and my cousin sadly fell through, which was a big impetus of choosing Denver as a location), but the one thing that kept my plans in tact was that I’d be seeing the Sufjan Stevens concert at Red Rocks Park and Ampitheatre. The last time I saw concerts at that venue was back in 1987 for the Grateful Dead three nights in a row. So, it was a returning of sorts to my rock’n’roll roots, in nature. Isn’t it refreshing Red Rocks still has the same name too? It has not been renamed after a corporate brand. The concert stage is set between two monolithic sandstone ledges, creating the most majestic venue on earth for live performance, spread out among the awesome Rocky Mountain skyline, complete with double-rainbows! I’m a live-concert snob (London, Vienna, New York, you name it – I am fortunate to have seen many legends perform in the best of venues), and now live on a remote island where events like this don’t happen, so there was no way I was going to miss this glorious show, which was so healing on many levels. When he took the stage he said, “Welcome to the spaceship of Red Rocks, my name is Sufjan Stevens and I love you.” and then he said, “Movement is life and life is love.”, which got us on our feet. More on the healing, transcendental power of live music later…. Oh, I also took in the Colorado Burlesque Festival at the Paramount Theatre, which was quite entertaining, as well! I got VIP seats for that, because since I hardly get off this island, and being a former stage performer myself, I appreciate the idea of go big or go home when it comes to a live show. Usually, I’m home, actually quite the reclusive shut-in these days.  The high-CBD legal medicinal cannabis edibles were a lovely treat to help ease anxiety.

As now, you may be wondering, “Wait, Laura, didn’t you go to Denver to see your teachers?” Yes, that was the original intent of the journey and a life-lesson supreme I learned there. I’ve struggled with how much to share here on this blog, and I am going to take a line from one of Sufjan’s songs, “Even with the rest belated, everything is antiquated, Are you writing from the heart, are you writing from the heart?” I truly do try to see/speak/live beauty first. After much deliberation and consultation with fellow yoga teachers familiar with this situation, I have concluded that the true yogic path is to speak from the heart, so here goes.

Without getting into the big historic mess of John’s massive yogic scandal, the last four years I stood up for, studied under, and defended John Friend until the end. I even lost friendships over my choosing to stay as his student, when he bailed on his creation of Anusara Yoga and moved into what he’s now marketing as “Global Bowspring”. I say marketing because that’s what it is – a marketing machine with a charismatic leader. There are elements of the Bowspring system that I absolutely love and I feel are very healing – I’ve seen it cure back-pain in many of my own students. The Bowspring alignment system DOES have value, however I feel that in trying to reinvent the wheel John seriously threw the baby out with the bath-water.

What made me fall in love with John’s former creation, Anusara Yoga (and I still love it, and will return to it, and will teach it) is that the principles of Anusara are “Attitude, Alignment, Action”. Positive attitude with unlimited potential, followed by optimal alignment of the body, muscles, bones, to express in ultimate artistic expression of one’s self, with an open heart. All in one pose, and sequenced together in a whole class – it’s magnificent, life-affirming and life-enhancing! When I had taken Bowspring workshops in the past, it had been in Costa Rica, Germany, and Spain and only 10 or 12 hours over a weekend, so it was little talk and lots of movement, which was perfect for me – get me into my body where I can feel free. Where this Colorado 21-hour “lifestyle training”, over seven days, in the States, went sour was it was basically John lecturing for over an hour before we even move, and what he spoke of was steeped in superstition and pseudoscience, which you know I have no tolerance for. With a straight face he cited references in ancient Chinese medicine, and bragged about the sexual virility of the men back then….ummmm, that’s why Rhinos, tigers, sea-turtles and other animals are on the verge of extinction, because of this “ancient wisdom” has driven them to be hunted for properties that are not even scientifically validated. This type of pseudoscience causes harm, and that is why I’m speaking up.

During the first day’s lecture, I sat there as a good student does, until he got to now what he calls his first (and only) principle ACCOUNTABILITY. Over the past four years, in workshops, he’d mention things like the people he hurt in the past (whether it’s extramarital affairs he had with his students, or asking employees to illegally deliver marijuana to his corporate office, etc.) were all THEIR doing, which to an extent it was. I’m an existentialist, so I absolutely do believe in free will. He never forced anyone to do anything.

When I got back from that Ayahuasca trip in Costa Rica recently, I basically “fired” one of my best, most loyal students. Why? Because one thing that plant medicine gave me was CLARITY of vision and thinking. I saw clearly how my relationship with this particular student had been inappropriate, and I simply said, “I can no longer be your teacher, I have taught you all I can, it is time for us to clearly cut bonds as student/teacher/friends”. On the other hand the plant medicine has created a loving, nurturing, understanding bond with my father – something I thought would NEVER happen. Suddenly there is insight into what is clear and good and appropriate and healing. I can see now that the reason I defended John so much was that I myself, as a teacher, perhaps behaved inappropriately with one of my long-time students, which actually led to my near-death experience. I wouldn’t have needed rescuing from the bottom of that swimming pool, lifeless, if I had not been in that toxic situation to begin with. To cut that tie, even though over the last few years it had been fairly innocuous, felt good. Felt like the right thing to do.

As you may have read in my Ayahuasca journey, I finally able to FACE a sex

ual trauma/assault that happened to me thirty-years ago. Thirty years of baggage, thirty years of shame, thirty years of almost reenacting that horrific abuse because somehow I felt I deserved it. The plant medicine showed me CLEARLY that I did not deserve it, and I finally got to grieve for that 18-year old girl who was held captive, tied-up, with a hunting knife at my throat and assaulted, while my so-called “best friend” took pictures of her Uncle sexually assaulting me. I finally got to grieve for that little girl and the plant medicine told me, “You are a good girl, you did not deserve that, no matter what”. When John Friend started rambling about “accountability” (which is his cop-out for all the people he hurt), I spoke up. First of all, I’m an introvert with a life-long fear of public speaking (strange for a yoga teacher, I know). I said, in front of the whole class, “So, we’ve all read in the news lately about the Stanford Rape Trial. Can you please tell me how that young woman behind the dumpster was accountable for what happened to her?” MIC DROP.

I wanted to know the answer, not just for myself, but some of my yoga students are ex-pats who are U.S. military veterans with major PTSD, and how can I possibly tell them they signed up for that shit? PTSD is a life-long, daily debilitating battle that nobody chooses.  On John’s part, there was lots of back-peddling – he did say, yes, the Stanford Rape was a crime, however the girl DID HAVE A CHOICE to go out that night, she DID HAVE A CHOICE to get drunk, and therefore…..hey, things happen. A woman in the class chimed-in that she was accountable for being assaulted in a local park. She said she saw on the news that there was a rape in a local park, and she chose to run there anyway, and she got assaulted and therefore it was HER FAULT. Everyone in the class just nodded their head in agreement, and I’m sitting there incredulous not trying to hide my eye-rolls. Instead of the good old Anusara days of Positive Attitude, here it seemed to be blame and shame, and people aren’t “evolved” enough in their healing if they have difficulty getting over it.

Then, I guess because I’ve always been such a stellar student in the past, John asked me, “So, Laura Kay, what would you consider to be THE GOOD LIFE”? I said, “Freedom from depression and addiction” – crippling diseases I have battled my whole adult life, conditions that have been resistant to every type of therapy out there, until the Ayahuasca.  Addiction, for me was in the form of alcohol and prescription painkillers, of which I am now thankfully in recovery since my near-death. So, John said basically that to cure depression eat less fruit to avoid candida. First of all I live in the tropics, where we all know how to keep candida under control in this hot/humid environment. I’ve been on massive amounts of probiotics since my lungs were filled with bacteria-laden water, and I don’t even eat fruit normally because of the sugar. I’ve became lacto-vegetarian in 1982 (before it was cool) and vegan for over three years, so I’m well aware of the brain/gut connection. Contemplating suicide? Eat less fruit – okay.  Sure.  Then I saw how it was all a marketing tie-in to the new restaurant connected to the studio. So, okay, I went to the restaurant and ordered the Beet Juice Cocktail without the vodka. I was literally told, “The vodka is already mixed in with the beet juice, you can’t have it without the alcohol” then I was led to an assortment of bottled in plastic pre-made juices (by the time it’s manufactured and bottled the digestive enzymes are basically weakened and what’s the point).  One luxury of the States was potable drinking water straight from the tap – something we don’t have here, so I just stuck with that!  They did have fresh coconut water for $6.00 but I get mine from my neighbor for 50-cents, so tap-water it was for me!  None of us on this island make much money ($5 yoga classes), or spend much money, so this was a very expensive learning lesson for me.  I can only be grateful.

Maybe I’ve lived on a remote “third world” island (gratefully) too long, where everything is limited, but at least it’s fresh. Perhaps I’m just not cut out for the “first world” anymore. Being driven around Colorado, Aurora and Littleton, I got the tour, “Oh here is where we had a mass shooting, oh here yet another mass shooting”. I could smell the fear coming off of people, even the one ones in the most expensive, trendy yoga accouterment (which must equal spiritual enlightenment, right?). The layer of fear and consumerism was so rampant, it was like a layer of sweat on everyone I was breathing into my delicate lungs. I did make some lovely acquaintances, mostly a girl from Ecuador that was in the workshop too – I felt a kinship with her (I had done one of my Anusara Yoga Teacher Trainings in Ecuador, beautiful country). So, what did I do? I dropped out. I only attended four days of the seven day “lifestyle training”. I found some people in Denver who have lived in Bocas Del Toro, and hung out with them for a day, which felt so refreshing. The place I live can’t really be described, unless you have a minimum of five years under your belt living/surviving here, you just won’t get it. Maybe put it down to my damaged lungs at mile-high, maybe put it down to my brain post-concussion, maybe put it down to me being on my painful period, who knows? I was outta there. I moved out of my AirBnBapartment and into the house of a British man I met right here in Bocas Del Toro, Panama that I had clicked with. The reason I even rented an AirBnB place is that with TBI I get lost very, very easily, so I needed a place that was within walking distance of the studio.

Once I got out of that place and into the house of my gentleman friend everything was fine. He worked during the day, and is also somewhat of a geeky introvert, who binge-watched his Netflix and left me alone to do my own geeky introvert thing. He was a nice companion to do things that I love to do – we caught a double IMAX feature at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. We caught an indie film at the local art-house movie theatre, as well, and ate abundantly Indian and Ethiopian food (my favorites). Unlike my past vacations (you may recall the Swiss Engineer or the German Pilot), although there was some one-sided sexual activity with my British host in Denver, this is not a “relationship” that will lead anywhere romantic, so alas I’m still single, and actually I’m fine with that. The aya taught me that I’m whole on my own, although I am open to love, I truly am open, if I were to find anyone patient enough to deal with me – ha.  

The absolute climax of this trip, and which made it all worth while was the Sufjan Stevens concert at Red Rocks. You may recall how devastated I was at the death of my rescued street-dog, Lexi Lou. I literally felt like my life was ending when she died in my arms, and that is why I even took the Ayahuasca journey (which saved my life). During the last day’s of Lexi’s life, my Internet was down (welcome to island living). What to do without Internet? Good time to memorize the lyrics to the new Sufjan Stevens album “Carrie & Lowell”, which is about his schizophrenic mother’s death – the mother who left him at age 3 or 4. Each song deals with death, abandonment, love, life, sex -you name it.. He’s also a Christian, so if you think that me being an atheist means I can not appreciate art/music/life coming out of a Christian’s mouth, that would be incorrect. As depressing as the content sounds on paper, musically it is uplifting, so when he sang those songs, Lexi was with me, tears were flowing, and for old-time’s sake I dropped a mild tab of acid from Amsterdam. Psychedelic therapy to treat PTSD, depression and addiction is finally starting to get the credit it deserves. What it does is it forces the brain to stop repetitive, destructive patterns of ruminating thought, and experience the glory of the moment. With the rocks, the rainbows, the mountains, and being in the third row was really watching up close – it seemed like the whole experience was catered to the psychedelic experience. The band was dressed in day-glow colors, and there were elaborate mirror-ball effects and colorful lights. Sufjan is such a cerebral, intellectual artist I was expecting him to just sit at a piano and sing and cry. It was the opposite! Even though the lyrics were yes, deep, deep, deep, he dressed it up with an elaborate, entertaining stage show. My favorite part was when his back up singers/dancers (one of whom was on colorful crutches, mending a hip-injury) were singing “don’t be distracted, don’t be distracted, don’t be distracted” while he changed into an elaborate shiny costume – even he had a sense of humour and was tongue-in-cheek about what he was presenting (definitely not a charlatan). That he was HOT was unexpected – wow. He was unexpectedly physically buff and danced like a hip-hop artist. So, it was super refreshing to have this really deep, truly melancholic music presented in a super fit and fresh manner. That he got us all up on our feet singing, with hands in the air, “We’re all gonna die” was so cathartic, so healing, so amazing! What better way to celebrate life than to be tripping on a mountaintop chanting about death? Now THAT is life-affirming. Sufjan ended the show saying, “We have one last song and unfortunately it is about death. It wouldn’t be a Sufjan Stevens show without death, but I’m still alive.”

I learned more about self-acceptance, self-expression, forgiveness, community and acceptance, and the allowance of grief during that concert than in any expensive, catered-to-the-United States “lifestyle training”. No, I am NOT A VICTIM, I will not be shamed or blamed, I am a SURVIVOR. That is why I am returning to New Life Ayahuasca in September, at their invitation, to dive even deeper into true healing in the mountains of Costa Rica.  Each trip unlocks a new piece of the grand puzzle of life…of the Universal connection of us all. This medicine works and it’s practically in my back-yard. I recently took up SCUBA diving too, since the ayahuasca! Talk about a lesson in overcoming fear, after drowning. SCUBA diving right here in the archipelago I live in! I’ve searched the world and have come to find that the beauty of where I live – Central America – is so astounding, I can stop searching. I have found myself, on a mountaintop, under the ocean, all without a guru. The teacher is within. When I teach yoga, I try to be as authentic as possible – I share truthful, sometimes scary, stories of my addiction and traumas to help people feel less alone in theirs (you are not alone). We come together and celebrate what we’ve overcome – it’s time to thrive and be alive.  No shame. I do hope you join me. Let’s raise our hands in the air like we really fucking care!  

EPILOGUE: It’s official – on my way back into the country (Panama City, Panama), before flying to the remote island I live on, I stopped at my lawyer’s fancy high-rise office and MY LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT IS FINALIZED and I feel so free as a result! Everything (property & house) is going to an animal rescue organization. Now I can LIVE, LOVE AND DIE IN PEACE. Feeling free and happy. The ayahuasca is what told me to do this and I’m so happy I did, as I will never have any next-living-kin of the humankind. With one near-death experience under my belt, I know every day can be my last, and it’s with a free and clear heart that Lexi Lou’s legacy will be one of compassion and care-giving to other beaten and battered street-doggies like she was. Please never shop, only adopt. Please spay and neuter. Spread the love and find your heart in the process.  ♥

Laura Kay