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Autobiography of a Yogını: An Interview with Seane Corn


Interviews

Seane Corn describes her evolution and the revolution she's taking part in during this interview with Stephen Kiesling.

Seane Corn first rose to prominence as a charismatic yoga teacher, particularly through her instructional videos. She is also an activist and speaker. Her first book, Revolution of the Soul, is the raw, surprising, and inspirational story of her awakening—and a blueprint for yours. Stephen Kiesling, editor at large of S&H, spoke with Seane about the book, her journey, and her current practice.


To use your words, there is a Tigger-like enthusiasm that runs through your life. It also runs through Revolution of the Soul—whether you’re telling the worst story or the best. Where did that come from?

If my mother was here, she would smile at that. Because she tells me that I came out of the womb with my eyes wide open and that I was so curious about life from the very get-go, in a way that was different than my brothers. My friends often refer to me as a cosmic voyeur, in that I really am very curious and very excited by life. I don’t participate in things that make me uncomfortable, but I’ll stand back on the sidelines and watch and encourage others and feel zero judgment about how people want to live their life and do their thing, and be open to what it means for them and what their experience is. So, I think it’s just been in my body and my nature from the time I came into the world.

I was in Manhattan in the ’80s and probably visited the Limelight disco when you were tending bar, so we may have crossed paths.

I may have gotten you drunk, stoned, or laid back in the ’80s.

I never knew about the gay sex club upstairs at Limelight. But I remember going to one with a friend. It was not my thing, but there was a joy and a freedom that I have never seen anywhere. You captured that. You not only got a job in that club, you found God there.

I got that job more as a response from my boss. I was in the disco and went up those back stairs not knowing that there was this private club within a club—and I saw things I had never seen before. When I found my manager, I started asking him all sorts of questions. I was probably 19 years old, and I think he was so amused by me that he decided to let me experience it for myself in the way that I could, which was behind a bar. I didn’t really apply for the job or even think a job was available. It was just given to me, and I think because of my openness.

What about finding God there?

Well, I wasn’t raised with any religion—and really rejected religion. The God I learned about in school was very judgmental and punishing and patriarchal and seemed to hold grudges. Things that I just didn’t want a part of. It was in Heaven, the club upstairs, that I met a man named Billy who reframed my understanding of spirituality: to see it as something first of all within myself, but not exclusive of the shadow part of life that people often judge that includes sex, loss, death, fear, rage, shame. To see that all of it is fodder for our spiritual maturation, which would lead us both to love and to empathy.

Billy wanted me to understand that no matter where I was, there was God. No matter who I was in relationship with, I was in relationship with God. My first awakening was through Billy, who eventually died of AIDS. He opened my eyes to experiencing the world with less judgment, with more curiosity, more openness, and more acceptance.

The ’80s was the aerobics boom, yet you took a completely different path. How did that happen?

Well again, God had his hand in all of this. I was at a precipice. Being in New York in the ’80s with access to drugs and alcohol and all sorts of things and being open could have easily have been very hurtful, even could’ve caused death. I danced in those realms a lot, but I also had a job at a place called Life Café. Life Café was a café on 10th and Avenue B that was owned by a man named David Life, who went to India to study. David was very influential to me at that time because I was so young. He and Sharon Gannon, who was his partner—and is his partner.

They were bringing in these ideas and theories and I would hear about it all the time. It repelled me because I would hear the word God and my resistance was very high, and also draw me in because these were people that I liked. They were creative and beautiful and smart. I had a hard time reconciling people like them with the spiritual practice that I resisted. They weren’t dogmatic. They weren’t judgmental, so it put a little crack in the armor and it opened me a little bit to be willing to explore.

So, having David and Sharon, my environment at Life Café, with the experience I had with Billy, just set me on a pathway that allowed me to be available to wanting to go into a yoga studio for the first time in the late ’80s. It took years before yoga reached in and grabbed hold of my soul, but I liked the practice and all my friends were doing it. So that’s what led me to yoga rather than aerobics.

I love your description of being on the mat in L.A. It’s kind of like Brené Brown’s swimsuit incident, where she was writing a novel in her head about how terrible her husband thinks she looks in her bathing suit. You were writing an even more dramatic novel, hating yourself and the whole world before an emotional breakthrough. It’s a wonderful scene. Tell us about that.

To me, the way the book is written, it’s a trajectory of my experiences that I had as I began to wake up to myself, to my experiences, to trauma, to life. Again, I wanted to normalize this. I don’t know anybody—unless you are super advanced in the practice of yoga—that doesn’t have myriad thoughts spinning in their heads at all times. It’s part of the detox. You can’t change it until you see it, and too often we’re taught detachment in yoga way too soon, because detachment without awareness is just dissociation.

What I wanted to expose in that particular chapter are the thoughts that come up on the mat and how to work with them, and that they’re not actually bad. It’s a necessary part of our healing. I just wanted to pull the veil back and give people an opportunity to identify themselves in that process.

Today, as a 52-year-old woman, my mind won’t wander in the same way. I have better skills to come back into present time. When my mind does wander, I’ll still get curious. What was coming up? What do I need to work on? What’s being excavated within the unconscious that wants recognition? So that scene to me is a very normal process that I witness in students all the time: the fidgeting, the looking around. There’s something energetically and emotionally that’s being erupted from themselves—that their nervous system is trying to disconnect from.

That’s what was happening to me in that class in L.A. My body was remembering and it was releasing a lot of information, but my nervous system didn’t know what was on the other side of the release. Looking back, I know it was liberation, but at the time the contraction that I had held onto all those years represented safety. There was no evidence within my subconscious that to release that tension would lead me to peace. As my body was trying to let go, my mind was saying, “No, danger, danger, don’t do it.” That process is very normal and I wanted the reader to witness it within myself.

 How do you keep a practice going over decades?

To me, it’s just rolling out that mat and letting it be a discipline. But trust me, there are days when I don’t want to practice. I’ll look for any distraction. Yoga hits these weird plateaus where nothing is changing. My body’s not changing, my attitude’s not changing, but I always think of those moments as integration—that I just have to sit with the integration.

I also know that when I don’t practice yoga, I fall back into old behaviors. My body tenses up. I become more narrow-minded, more critical, more judgmental. When I practice yoga, I am less reactive. When I’m less reactive, I’m more responsive, I’m more available, open, and loving. The world then becomes more creative, more buoyant. Again, it’s a discipline. You can’t be attached to an end result. The practice is about the now. It’s what’s happening in this moment. But I trust that with yoga, I can stand in the presence of conflict and crisis without reactivity. Without it, I know that I will create separation. I will revert back to judgment, and I will become the very problem that I say I want to eradicate.

There has never been a moment where I’ve finished a practice and thought to myself, “You know, I shouldn’t have done this today. I don’t feel any better.” I always think to myself, “Thank God I rolled out that mat. Thank God I took that first deep breath.” That’s always how I feel at the end of a practice.

What about extreme poses?

The practice is about sensation and our reaction to sensation. The moment we hit the edge of sensation is when the yoga begins. I may have to put my leg behind my head to get the same sensation that you might get squeezing a knee into your chest. That’s fine. It’s about the mind-body connection—not how far you go in the pose. If you squeeze your knee to your cheek and stay present to the discomfort, breathe, stay non-reactive and patient, that’s actually the mature student. If I’ve got my leg behind my head and I’m pushing and I’m trying to get to the next place in the pose, that’s actually the beginning student. I’m avoiding the sensation, and what might be underneath that sensation, which is emotion.

Sensation is the language of the body. Your tension is going to reveal to you what’s living underneath it. It doesn’t matter if you’re flexible or not. It’s about meeting that edge and staying present to it. Many mainstream yoga teachers are not teaching that sensitivity. They’re trying to take advantage of the ego and encourage students to go deeper and to accomplish these poses, but that’s not what it’s about.

That said, I remember my dad asking me how long it would take for him to get into a full lotus. He was an extreme athlete, and I said, “Well dad, with your flexibility and your discipline, if you do this correctly, I would say a good year.” My father said, “That’s bullshit. I’ll have it in three months.” I was like, “All right dad, do what you gotta do.” My father would sit in his hot tub every night and he would crank his knees—crank ’em. Then he’d call me up and tell me what he was doing, and I’m like, “Dad you’re gonna hurt yourself.”

Anyway, three weeks, he calls me up and says, “I’m in full lotus right now.”

So, I start giving my father a lecture: “This is not what yoga is about. It’s not about setting goals. It’s about sensation.” My father says, “Shut up! For a decade I have been watching what my body can no longer do. Every day I wake up with a new ache, a new pain. Ever since I started yoga, I see improvements. Each day I watch my body do things it couldn’t do the day before. I’ve never felt more confident, more excited to wake up in the morning. You’re gonna tell me that’s not yoga?” I remember being really humbled in that moment because yoga had given him a sense of purposefulness. Now, with that said, my father ended up blowing out both his knees. As a result of that, he started to study Iyengar, became super sophisticated in his practice, and eventually became a teacher. That was a part of his healing. So, it wasn’t for me to tell him what yoga is. At that moment, that’s what yoga was for him, and it led to something else. That was very humbling for me. So again, when you ask that question, I can’t help but approach it from two different perspectives. It’s about the sensation, and it’s also about meeting the ego.

Another great story is going to India and having all these people dressed in yoga clothes patiently waiting to walk into a room to be groped by a famous old guru—and you’re the only person who says, “Wait a second, this isn’t right.”

Yeah, I was about 30 when I went to India and had that experience. Thank God, I had already done years of work around trauma—and it still put me in fight-flight-freeze. I still shut down. I still dissociated—until I didn’t. That was a turning point for me. It was both a shock and not a surprise at all. It was just disappointing to have to see it and then to know that I was going to consciously participate in it, which I did, because I kept coming to class. If I had a better sense of myself at that time, perhaps I would’ve said, “Oh no, I’m not doing this,” but I really wanted to be a part of that system of yoga practice. Being a part of that system meant that I had to be in denial.

It wasn’t as if other people didn’t know. They did, but it was more of a don’t ask, don’t tell, kind of a wink-wink, just the dirty old man stuff. At that time, I saw it that way as well. I don’t see it that way now. There was something compulsive about it, and I do believe, especially as a teacher, that the onus is always on the teacher to recognize the trauma that might exist in the room. You have to be hypervigilant when you put your hands on students. Even if the student perceives the touch in a way that wasn’t intended, intention doesn’t always equal impact. Again, the onus is on the teacher to understand that. That teacher did not understand it, and I think traumatized a lot of women, especially women who unlike myself didn’t have a good support team, didn’t have skills, and didn’t have that awareness, who actually went there thinking they were meeting an enlightened being. That would have been—and has been—devastating for many, many students.

I thought it was a very helpful story. You also write about wearing sandals into a garbage dump in Cambodia where people are living—a shift from your journey of self-discovery to going to the worst place in the world to help out.

Again, there’s a trajectory. The first part of the book is the evolution of the soul. That’s the individual growth one goes through to reconcile who they are in the world, their own trauma, their own belief systems, and moving towards owning some of the emotional issues that keep you blocked, seeing it through a broader spiritual lens, and then of course the process of forgiveness.

The second part of the book, the revolution of the soul, is really the now what? Now that you’ve got these skills of personal healing, what do you do? Does it stay on the mat? Or does it evolve to force you to have to look at the world around you?

I first went into the world to be of service in Uganda—not because I was being altruistic, but really because there was so much abundance happening in my life. Suddenly, for the first time in my life I’m making money. I believe that when abundance comes in, you’ve gotta put the abundance out; otherwise, you stop the flow of energy. Me getting into service really was about that. I just didn’t want to stop the flow of abundance, not knowing it was going to be another level of yoga that was going to hold a mirror up to my perceptions and invite me to go even deeper into some of the historical, ancestral, and cultural trauma that influences who I am in the world and how I experience the world.

At first, I was learning that “my pain is my purpose.” The discovery that, Oh my god, all that trauma, all that deep inner work—that that moment where my trauma existed, the root of it, was the very place in which I was going to be invited to serve and meet the shadow part of myself that I thought I had healed, but actually had rejected, had denied. So that became my first adventure in Uganda.

In Cambodia, it starts getting more and more complex because I’m really having to unpack power and privilege and self-image and dominance and colonization. All the ways in which, as a white woman of privilege, I’ve been indoctrinated to continue separating. I’ve been taught that yoga’s about oneness, that we are all one. I believe this with 100% of my soul, and suddenly for the first time I’m being shown the complexities, that although we are one, we are not the same. Until I understand those differences, then I’m actually still a part of the systems that oppress others, that perpetuate this dominance.

I had zero relationship to this until my experiences in Uganda and Cambodia. Then I began to see that when I’m confronted with trauma and the rational part of my brain shuts down and the primal part of my brain gets activated that I am hardwired to oppress. I’m hardwired to separate. That my perception is always going to come from the dominant culture which I’m a part of, which only makes me complicit to that separation. This is such a deep yoga, and such a deep healing that I couldn’t have understood had I gone to Cambodia at 18 or at 25.

Where does the practice put you now?

All my years on the mat led me to these environments where I was able to say, “Oh my god! Here’s where the yoga is.” The idea that yoga is now! Oh yeah, it’s now! It’s on the dumps. It’s in L.A. It’s everywhere where there’s oppression, where there’s separation, where we other-ize. And that we’re being invited to get more sophisticated in our understanding of yoga and how we show up in the world with these practices

Corn 1

For the last 12 years, Seane Corn has been integrating yoga, transformational work, and conscious activism through the organization she co-founded, Off the Mat, Into the World. It supports leadership from the inside out: “So that we’re not creating more harm; so that we’re not imposing our beliefs onto cultures or onto other people that we don’t quite understand; so that we can acknowledge our own internalized dominance and the ways in which that shows up in the world.”


Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, co-creator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor at large of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.


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