Michelle Cassandra Johnson - Oppression Takes the Breath Away
For our first episode of 2020 Jo and Rane speak with Michelle Cassandra Johnson.
Michelle Cassandra Johnson is a writer, yoga teacher, social worker, activist, and author of Skill in Action.
Skill in Action is an unflinching look at power and privilege, oppression, liberation and suffering, and invites readers to take steps to make changes in their lives to create a world that allows all of us to be free. It incorporates yogic philosophy, poetry and personal practice as a path towards dismantling racism.
In this episode, we learn about Michelle's background growing up in Richmond, Virginia, how she discovered yoga and the inspiration for writing the book Skill in Action.
Also, Rane was surprised to learn that he was selected as one of 20 Teachers of Colour to Watch in 2020!
Michelle's website: https://www.michellecjohnson.com/
Skill in Action: https://www.michellecjohnson.com/skill-in-action-book
Makarlu Masterclass: https://www.gardenofyoga.com.au/workshops/makarlu-masterclass/
Click on a timecode to play from that time in the recording.1:47 Rane was added to the 20 Yoga Teachers of Colour to Watch for 2020 list
3:40 The Makarlu Masterclass with Carla Mullins
4:57 Michelle talks about her background growing up in Richmond, Virginia
5:26 How did Michelle discover yoga?
8:11 Was Michelle drawn to yoga because she innately knew that self-care would be required for a career in social work?
9:08 Was there a defining moment that inspired Michelle to write Skill in Action?
10:31 Did Michelle have a clear idea of the book at the start, or did it evolve through the process of writing it?
12:05 Did Michelle have a particular reader in mind when she was writing the book?
13:50 Jo reflects on how even though the book is aimed at collective healing, it can also be used as a tool for personal development
15:16 Internal work vs external action
20:03 Yoga is about being of service
22:25 Michelle talks about her experience of the breath as mentioned in the book.
28:49 What does Michelle think about situations where someone might be prescribing how a student should be breathing?
33:51 How should white people go about sharing this information in yoga classes?
40:10 Midroll - Support us on Patreon
41:20 Does Michelle ever encounter any pushback or resistance during her workshops?
46:24 How does Michelle maintain her sense of compassion?
49:46 Intent and impact
57:45 What is the one core thing that Michelle would like to share with the world?
Please email us to report any transcription errorsRane Bowen: Hello my name is Rane and this is The Flow Artists Podcast. Every episode we interview inspiring movers, thinkers and teachers about how they find their flow and much much more. I hope you’re having an absolutely wonderful day. Happy New Year, Happy 2020! It is our first episode back and I could not be more excited. I’ve got plenty of news to share with you but I’ll try and keep it brief.
Over the break, Jo and I went on holiday in New Zealand. It was absolutely fantastic over there, the weather was wonderful, it was wonderfully temperate and we had a good time visiting family and friends. Unfortunately though, while we were over there we were very upset and saddened to see all the news of the bushfires that were happening in Australia while we were away, and we felt a little bit powerless, there wasn’t much we could do while we were over there, maybe not much we could do while we’re here but what we decided to do once we came back was to have a couple of classes, four I think actually, where all the proceeds went towards the CFA, went towards relief efforts for people affected by the fire. So we managed to raise $508 and I know that is a drop in the ocean but it was great that we were able to just contribute a small amount to people that may have been affected and, and we just want people to know that have been affected by the fires that you’ve not been forgotten: us and many other people see you and really hope we can help in some small way.
Anyhow, on to some positive news. The other day I received an email, I woke up and received an email, it was from Jesal Parekh who is one of the creators of the Yoga is Dead podcasts, and the email was to let me know that I’d been selected for one of the ‘20 teachers of colour to watch in 2020’ and to say that I was gobsmacked would be an understatement! There are some amazing teachers on this list: Jessamyn Stanley, Dianne Bondy, Manoj Dias, Donna Noble, just to mention a few. They are amazing teachers, I cannot believe that I am on the same list. So I am deeply honoured, it is incredible, I can’t say that enough times. Ah absolutely wonderful and I’ll leave the link for that in the show notes.
Now this list was an extension of the list they did last year, ah I think it was ‘19 women of colour’ and one of the people on that list is our guest for today, so that tied in nicely I think! Michelle Cassandra Johnson - she is the author of Skill in Action, she is a yoga teacher, writer, amazing human being and we could not wait to get the chance to speak with her, so I’m really excited about this episode. Skill in Action is a wonderful book, it is an unflinching look at racism, it uses poetry, yogic philosophy, personal practice, to really examine your personal stories around these issues and I think it is an amazing book. It should be part of yoga teacher trainings in my opinion, I definitely recommend that you go and get that book if you have not already. So, yeah we’re absolutely excited to get the chance to speak with her and have this conversation.
But before we get on to that, I just wanted to let you know about what’s coming up at our studio, Garden of Yoga. On Thursday the 13th of February at 6pm, we are having a Makarlu masterclass with the creator of the Makarlu, Carla Mullins. She featured in our last episode of 2019 - if you haven’t heard that I think you should go and have a listen to it. And while we were in New Zealand Jo and I also made a video where Jo really shows a lot of the things that are possible with the Makarlu, so check that out.
I’ll leave links to everything I’ve spoken about on our website: podcast.flowartists.com and if you want, join the conversation on the Flow Artists Podcast community on Facebook, there’s lots of good stuff happening there, so come and join us.
Alright, I don’t think I have anything else to say for now, so let’s get on with our conversation with Michelle Cassandra Johnson.
Rane Bowen: Alright well, Michelle, thank you so much for speaking with us this morning. So glad to finally get the chance to speak with you, we absolutely love your book, Skill in Action, so perhaps we could start with you just telling us a little bit about your background and where you grew up.
Michelle C Johnson: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and lived there for about 21 years and then I moved to North Carolina to go to grad school for social work, so I’m still licensed as a clinical social worker although I’m not practicing as one now, and then I had a one-year stint in Portland, Oregan before moving back to North Carolina and I live in Winston, Salem, and that’s where I am right now, I’m inside of my house in Winston, Salem, North Carolina.
Jo Stewart: And so could you tell us how you discovered yoga?
Michelle C Johnson: I forgot this actually, I remembered after the book was published, that I had a Jane Fonda tape <laugher> which was yoga, a VHS tape which was yoga. I don’t remember what it was called though, or if it was called a yoga practice, and when I was a teenager I would, I would practice moving to that VHS tape and I just had blocked that out, sort of, had forgotten.
So what’s written in the book is that my first experience of yoga is in college, and that actually was my first experience of attending a class, and I practiced, it was a gym credit for college and so we did many different things in yoga which is one of the modules that we moved through, and I remember being in that gym class and, and practising yoga and mirrors lining the room, right? And I remember it not necessarily feeling like a spiritual practice at all, and I also felt like I was just comparing myself to other people and I didn’t really have body awareness, even though I played sports all throughout high school, I didn’t really have body awareness ‘cause moving through an asana practice is different than moving through like field hockey or soccer, which is what I played in high school. And so I went through this experience of this yoga class for this gym credit, and then I, when I moved to North Carolina for grad school, I started to go practice yoga in a gym, I had a gym membership and there was a pretty well-known teacher in our community, um and a friend invited me to go and so I went, and it definitely felt like a spiritual practice, in that space, with this particular teacher, and that sort of, like piqued my curiosity about the practice of yoga and what else is available other than the movement part of it, other than asana, right and, because this teacher would read, I don’t know if he was reading from the sutras or other texts, but he was definitely reading things about spiritual practice and how to be, like principles about how to be in the world and how we could engage our physical practice because it was an asana class, we didn’t necessarily talk about the other parts of the path of yoga, but he, I think he invited us into considering how we could think about yoga as a way of being versus like, just moving through a posture and that really made me want to practice it more, and so I ended up practicing in a studio that opened up across the street from my house and I started practicing every day with different teachers, meditation and asana, and then that’s what led me to go through teacher training.
Jo Stewart: I actually know quite a few people who work in the social work field who love yoga and discovered it while they were studying, was it something that you were innately drawn to because you felt like you were gonna need a bit of self care going into this type of work and you were kind of interested in how the human mind worked or was it not that conscious, it was just like, oh this feels good and this is something that I’m interested to explore further?
Michelle C Johnson: You know it’s hard to say, like I don’t remember thinking that I, I might need this practice, when I started to engage with it, like I don’t remember having that thought consciously right, I’m sure that spirit knew that I needed the practice, but I don’t remember saying that to myself. I do remember the moment when I decided to go through yoga teacher training and I was already a social worker and I thought, well I’m talking about the mind-body connection and I’d like to integrate movement and meditation, visualisation and mantra work into my private practice with clients, so that was a defining moment for me for sure, around how the practice of yoga can be used, right, and as a tool for healing. And of course, I mean I think I was, I was healing myself right, as I was going through this practice, but again it wasn’t a conscious, like I need this practice to heal my spirit right, it wasn’t, I didn’t think about it that way, now I do think about the practice in that way. But then I didn’t.
Jo Stewart: And was there a defining moment that inspired you to write Skill in Action?
Michelle C Johnson: I started leading my own teacher training, which was called Skill in Action in, I think 2012/2013, and I was in, I think about the third year of leading that, so with my third cohort, and I’d written a manual for Skill in Action, and in the manual I write about social justice, like I wrote about the yamas and niyamas, similarly to the way that I wrote about them in the book, and there were some articles about justice and of course everything we talked about in this teacher training was about the intersection of justice and yoga, and so there was a student I had, her name was Marsha, oh Marcia is her name, and she said, ‘you should write a book’ and I was like, ‘oh I should write a book’ <laughs>, okay… and then I thought, well I’ve written this manual, which is like, over a 100 pages, I can sit down and write a book about yoga and justice, instead of just like talking about it and I have the, I mean the, Skill in Action is very different than my teacher yoga teaching manual, but in that moment I felt like. ‘oh I’ve sat down, I’ve written a manual before’, like it’s, and it took a lot of energy and time and I had to do it because my teacher training was coming up, so I think that just made me believe that I could write this book, and it was really Marcia that sparked the thought for me.
Jo Stewart: And I’m so glad that you did! I’m also really curious if it evolved a lot through the creative process of your writing or did you go into it with a pretty clear idea of what you wanted to say from the beginning?
Michelle C Johnson: I worked with someone who sort of managed the Skill in Action project, writing the book, and she helped me with the outline and then I sat down and wrote, you know in response to this outline we co-created, and the book did evolve. The ‘where I’m from’ activity was added late, like it was one of the last things I added before I self-published, everything else was written …
Jo Stewart: Ahh…
Michelle C Johnson: … which was really interesting because it’s actually what I lead with in most Skill in Action workshops, is for us to think about where we are from …
Jo Stewart: Yeah…
Michelle C Johnson: … and our cultural conditioning, and I remember where I was sitting, when I, I was living in Portland at that point and it was late 2017 and I was like, ‘oh I want to add this ‘where I’m from’’ and I just sat down and wrote mine in like, 30 minutes or shorter, like it didn’t take me any time to write it, and um, it’s actually an activity that I’ve done in teacher trainings before, but I wrote a very different ‘where I’m from’ poem than the one I’m, the ones I’ve written in the past, and that’s the thing that was added and that sort of shaped the, I feel like that shaped the book and how people engage with it because it asks people right away to consider where they’re from, their roots, their ancestors, and deeper than like geography, right? Like, where are we from and how did we come to be as a culture is really the question that I’m asking people to explore in that exercise.
Jo Stewart: Yeah absolutely!
Rane Bowen: Mmm that’s a great exercise as well and we both feel that ah Skill in Action should be required reading in yoga teacher trainings, and it gives such a poetic and practical exploration of the yogic philosophy and also, I think makes it relevant for our lives today, um did you have a particular reader in mind while you were writing the book?
Michelle C Johnson: I definitely said out loud, I was like ‘I want this to be a part of yoga teacher trainings’ and I knew I wanted to teach modules in response to the book becoming part of teacher training curriculum. So, that was my goal, I knew that, and I feel like Skill in Action is for anyone who’s trying to connect with a spiritual practice, both to heal themselves and to heal the collective, and to see the ways that we’re different based on our identities. And so I think a lot of people doing diversity work or inclusion work or anti-oppression work, the book will appeal to them as well because it really is about like. who’s left out of spaces and who’s included and what’s the history of that and why, and how we can look to create liberatory spaces that are welcoming to all. So that’s the, I feel like the purpose of the book, although lots of yogis are, are reading it, right? That’s naturally who’s drawn to it or attracted to it. But I really think it’s for anyone interested in spiritual practice and interested in doing something other than spiritual bypassing, by like actually bringing a conversation about what’s happening in our culture into the spiritual practice spaces.
Jo Stewart: The vibe I got from the book as well, especially when there were so many poetic passages about encouraging people to do creative writing about their own identity and, I really got the sense that there was this overarching theme that like, your voice matters and who you are as a person matters and I thought that was a really beautiful aspect of the text, and so it’s kind of interesting that you’re expressing an idea that it’s for the collective, but I could absolutely imagine like say just someone living in a little town on their own, like no yoga classes, picking it up and being able to tap in to this really rich and beautiful tradition.
Michelle C Johnson: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s true and I appreciate you reflecting that back to me because I’m so focused on the collective and what does collective healing look like, moment to moment, right? ‘cause context matters, and the way that I think people would say I facilitate is to do what you just said, is to invite people into understanding who they are or who they want to be, right? And then to, I encourage people to think about the reality that they have a role, right? And they have a responsibility because they are in their physical body at this moment in time right? And so they have some responsibility to other beings, and themselves, right, to think about freedom and liberation, and then to not only think about it but create conditions for freedom and liberation for all. So I think people would definitely, and maybe that’s the social worker part of me, right, coming out…
Jo Stewart: Mmhmm.
Michelle C Johnson: I think people would definitely say, when I hold spaces that I’m focused their individual experience and I’m focused on how their individual experience connects with the collective or the larger group.
Jo Stewart: I guess that’s the other aspect of ‘your voice matters’: along with that there comes a responsibility.
Michelle C Johnson: Mmhmm mmhmm I think so, because I think there is at least, I’ve only lived in the US, so here I feel like, and I say that because I can’t always speak about other spaces or cultures if I haven’t, like, been there, right, and I’m not connected to other spaces, but I think here, and it’s written about it in the book, I wrote about it, there’s a focus on the individual and the individual experience and I think that gets replicated in yoga. And in spiritual spaces we’re not necessarily talking about that responsibility that you and I are talking about right now, but it’s really about individual transformation and then it’s like, ‘for what?’ Right, to what end?
Jo Stewart: Mmhmm.
Michelle C Johnson: … like, why are we doing this? Right? I mean self-improvement is great and feeling whole is really important and I want everyone to feel whole and I also want them to see their connection to the larger whole, right, the larger group or collective is the language that I usually use.
Jo Stewart: And just looking at some yogic texts, there definitely are some interpretations that almost seem to suggest like not getting too passionate about any particular cause or like, renouncing the rest of society to go and practice in seclusion, and I’ve, I’ve heard that perspective from people in the modern world today as well, to say, that ‘oh we need to work on ourselves first before we turn our attention outwards’ like, these are two separate things .Would you like to speak a little bit more about internal work versus external action?
Michelle C Johnson: Yeah! I just led a workshop in Santa Barbara this weekend and, it was a full weekend Skill in Action workshop, and we started by focusing on ‘where I’m from’ and ‘cultural conditioning’, so what messages are we taking in from the larger culture about who we are? And based on our identities, the ones that are marginalised, so I’m a black woman, I’m taking in messages about what it means to be black and what it means to be a woman in this culture of the time, and often those messages are negative: from dominant culture, not from like my family or my chosen family or my friends or my community, but more the air we breathe in, like, how has dominant culture or dominance shaped the culture? Right? So I’m taking in those messages and then I’m, I have privileged identities, I’m able-bodied is one example, I have other privileged identities, so I’m taking in messages about what it means to be able-bodied, which often means that I don’t have to think about people living with disabilities, but I do because my mother has a disability. I started this workshop with that, like what is our conditioning? And then I focused on internalisations: what are we internalising and what manifests from what we are internalising? And that felt like the very personal work, like people did storytelling around and about this, the messages they’re taking in and what manifests. And they told the story that culture’s constructed for them, and they also told the story they want to like express, right, to the world and in their relationships. So it was this dance between, all of us are breathing in toxic air if we think about dominant culture and dominance and abuse of power, and what manifests is different for us and that’s based on the multiple identities we have, our intersectional identities, it’s also based on some other experiences, like if we’ve experienced trauma, it’s based on family and messages we did receive from family, or things that were unspoken. So we did this conditioning, which is like the large picture, we had a conversation about that, and then this internal work and then we connected it to action. So based on what you understand about your identities. And this is one of the activities in the book, it’s the ‘uniquely positioned’ activity in the book, so it’s like based on what I understand about my identity, both the narrative that I have about them and what culture says: what is my role and responsibility? How can I take action? And that will shift based on where I am and who else is in the space or what’s being called for in the moment. And I think that, you know, the idea of personal work is really, it’s important, I mean the practice of doing personal work is important, and I think we can get stuck there and we forget we’re connected, which is actually one of the reasons we suffer, one of the reasons we suffer is because we believe we’re isolated, and then culture is isolating us based on our identities, right? And so I think this like, hyper focus on ‘my own individual personal transformation’ absent of like, my ancestors or people that are moving on the planet with me right now feels, I don’t want to say feels dangerous, I feel like, I’d be missing something if I didn’t think about the connection to the whole, like to everyone’s humanity. And I think my awareness of my connection to others and my responsibility to others and to the planet, right, and to be a good human as I move on this planet. I think that is what actually defines action for me, like that’s what defines the action that I’m gonna take. I always remember that my actions affect other people because I’ve been negatively impacted by culture and by individuals and culture based on identity, and so, and I think it has to do with how I was raised, I think it has to do with my mom and her work, she’s a special education teacher, she was, for thirty years, and I spent a lot of time in her classroom watching her care for people. And so I actually think that’s what shaped this like, ‘oh! We are connected’ right, and ‘what we do matters’ and if I’m just on my cushion meditating, great, I’m probably not going to reach enlightenment because I’m like just doing my own individual thing instead of looking around and seeing the other beings I’m in relationship with.
Jo Stewart: Mmh absolutely, and even from a selfish point of view, like if you’re feeling down on yourself and you go out and do something productive in the world that has a positive effect on someone else’s life, like you usually feel better about yourself, like it’s actually kind of a, oh I don’t want to say a quick fix, but if you’re in a lot of internal struggle, it can just be a really good way to like shift that perspective and to tap into the greater picture beyond what’s going on inside your own head.
Michelle C Johnson: Yeah and this training in Santa Barbara was at Santa Barbara Yoga Centre and Jivana Heyman is one of the co-owners there and a comrade and friend of mine and he …
Rane Bowen: We’ve just got his book …
Jo Stewart: Yeah <laughs> and we’ve spoken to him on our podcast as well <laughs>
Michelle C Johnson: Yeah, I love him. He did a book reading while I was there and I, he talked about yoga as service and what you just said reminded me of that and the experience that we can have when we look outside of ourselves and when we remember connection because the, you know the message in yoga is that we are connected, right? Which is different than we’re the same, it’s that we are in relationship, all of us are, in some way, and Jivana talked about it as like, all of us are spirit, right? We’re spirit, we’re divine beings is what I say from the The Gita, right? And part of our practice is to connect with our divinity and the divinity in others, because that’s what The Gita says, and the practice can help us do this and remember divinity. And we could interchange humanity for divinity or wholeness for divinity, just whatever resonates for people. So I think you’re right that when we’re able to look outside of ourselves and also recognise that we’re divine, that we are spirit, that we are bigger than our physical bodies, even though we are in physical bodies, that we can shift our perspective, and I think that’s what you’re naming when we engage in yoga as service, bigger than the physical practice, although that is one way that people serve, they create spaces for people to practice, right, and to move and to breathe and reconnect with their bodies, right? When we engage in service work I think its a reminder of our individual and collective humanity and divinity.
Rane Bowen: This might be another selfish perspective but, I mean even, some of the teachers we’ve spoken to who seem to be most of service seem to be the most successful, it’s kind of interesting.
Michelle C Johnson: Mmhmm mmhmm, yeah.
Rane Bowen: So in the book, your passage on the breath was so moving and powerful and I was wondering if you’d like to unpack this concept for people listening who may have not read your book yet?
Michelle C Johnson: So earlier ya’ll asked a question about the book and how did it evolve, and one of the other things that just came to mind when you asked about the breath is my birth story. So I didn’t know all of the details of my birth story. I knew a few things and I, I wasn’t in Portland yet so I was still in North Carolina and I remember I was in my kitchen, in my apartment, and I had a phone conversation with my mother about the baby that she miscarried two years before having me, and then about my birth. And she told me all the details about my birth story that she remembers and that’s what ended up in the book, as an opening to why I am so connected with the breath and why the breath feels like it’s so connected to liberation and our capacity to be free, right, our ability to be free. And when I was born I, right before, they did a c-section actually, I was losing oxygen, so I couldn’t breathe and I would not come out, and they had to act fast right, you know, if you think about taking action, they had to do something very quickly, and they put my mother under anaesthesia so they could do this emergency c-section. And two things happened, the afterbirth came out before they pulled me out, and then they did the c-section and pulled me out and I couldn’t breathe. And so, what ended up happening is there was no preemie unit or premature unit in that hospital, I was born in 1975, and I was taken to a hospital 30-minutes across town and I didn’t see my parents for, ah, my dad was not there, he had to be called to come in, but he didn’t stay at all. But I’m in this, this hospital and I’m 2 pounds and 3 ounces and trying to survive, right, and I was in an incubator for a month. My mother got to see me after nine days and she, when she told me this story, I could tell that she was talking about, you know, birth trauma, right, which lots of people have, but she was also talking about being a black woman in 1975 whose husband was not there and she’s birthing a baby that’s premature in a culture that, and these are my words, but in a culture that did not appreciate blackness and still does not appreciate blackness, right? And so, what that translated for her is she didn’t actually get information from doctors, people would not share information with her about what was going on with me, and I think about this and how terrified she must have been, and I also think about like, how terrified I must have been at 2 pounds and 3 ounces in an incubator.
And so, she told me this story and, and I had been talking about the breath, right, for years, you know? I have asthma as well, so I’ve been thinking about the breath and I’ve have had the experience of not being able to breathe, and having to go to the hospital to have a nebuliser treatment or to get a shot, right, to open up my bronchial tubes so I could breathe, so I had that experience as a child, and, when I started teaching yoga, I started talking about the breath because it seems central to the practice and the breath, when I’m able to breathe I feel free, and there are so many times when I am not able to breathe. And so hearing my mother recount the birth story, right, how I came into the world, it made me wonder, on some cellular level, is there a memory of me not being able to breathe when I was birthed? Did I remember that and is that why I talked about and continue to talk about the breath, so much, right, more than the movement, more than, I mean I think I talk about the breath more than any other part of the practice, because the breath feels like the practice, especially when I’m living in a space where some people are not able to breathe or the breath is extinguished because of white supremacy or because of systems of oppression or superiority.
And the other thing I’ll say about the breath, ‘cause it ties to what I just said, is that the day after Eric Garner, and I named him in the book and I named some other black men and boys and a black woman who’ve been, in my opinion, murdered by the police or murdered by white supremacy, that’s what I can say, the day after Eric Garner was murdered, I went in to teach yoga and I said, without planning this, I said ‘oppression takes the breath away’. I was leading a meditation, first five minutes of class, and I said ‘oppression takes the breath away’, and I sat and like witnessed myself, right, and I thought about ‘okay how is this going to land for people’ ‘cause I’m in an hour long, like lunchtime class, and people know me and they know I talk about the breath as liberating, but they never, they’ve never heard me say, ‘we live in a culture where oppression takes the breath away’. And I think for folks who knew the story of Eric Garner, they knew exactly what I was talking about, and they also were hearing it from a black woman saying this. And for me, a lot of what I talk about with the breath is that we need to, part of our action, right, and responsibility, is to make space for others to breathe and I can’t help but believe, like that’s so much from my experience of not being able to breathe, right? Through birth, being birthed into this world in the way I was, my mother, the way she was treated, having asthma and having to navigate healthcare systems, right, and as a black kid with asthma not necessarily getting the best healthcare, even though my mother tried, you know, to make it so that I would get the best healthcare but the healthcare system hasn’t really been designed to keep me healthy or to make me well, and then to invite people into inhaling and exhaling and really think about the practice of the breath and what it provides for us, and when we can’t breathe, right we, our physical body, like we die, right? I mean our spirit and soul lives on, but our, being able to move from this physical body stops at that moment, and so the breathe feels like, obviously ‘cause I’ve been talking about it for a few minutes now <laughter>, it feels so, it feels so powerful to invite people into thinking about how are you going to make space for other people to breathe? Which equals: are you gonna make space for other people to live? Right? Regardless of their identities and your conditioning around who you believe they are, right? If they have identities that are marginalised, people are taking in messages that culture says aren’t normal, that they are not good enough, that they’re not worthy, that they’re undeserving, right? And so I really invite people into thinking about, ‘okay you have this space to breathe right now, in this moment, and what are you going to do to make space for others to breathe?’ So that’s a little bit, or a lot, about the breath.
Jo Stewart: So powerful.
Rane Bowen: Mmm mm. I’m curious about how this might play out in a yoga class where you might have someone literally prescribing how someone else should breathe, I’m wondering if I could get your opinions on that?
Michelle C Johnson: Mmm hmm. This question’s come up before. I think, in my own practice, if I’m inviting people into a deeper breath in a culture that enacts a lot of trauma, which makes us not breathe, right, I know that from my experience, my own lived experience of trauma and I know it from my experience as a social worker, right, clients coming in and holding their breath and witnessing that, so I think it is counter to dominant culture to invite people to the breath, to inhale and exhale. Because so much of what I think is that the culture doesn’t want us to breathe, I mean it depends on who we are, but really like, the toxicity that culture’s creating I think affects everyone’s breath right and their capacity to breathe. It’s just that we have some cultural norms here about who should have space to breathe, right.
Rane Bowen: Mmm
Michelle C Johnson: So it’s multi-layered and I think if the intention is to invite people into deeper breath so they can experience their true essence, so they can understand they’re bigger than their thoughts, and their conditioning is what I would say about that, if we’re inviting people into a deeper way of breathing so that we can create a different way of being, then I think that’s, that’s powerful. What’s complicated about it, or has been for me, is when I’ve been in yoga spaces where I’m one of a few people of colour and I’m, I have a white teacher, or that’s how I’m reading the teacher, right, I don’t ask, I don’t always know, and they’re inviting me to breathe and I’m still having this experience of feeling isolated because in so many wellness and yoga spaces here, they’re predominantly white. And so, you know, given my background and that I’m an anti-racism trainer and I just told you the story about the breath, and I think about supremacy and systems of superiority and oppression all of the time, of course I have this lens where I’m gonna have a moment where a white teacher is inviting me to breathe where I’m contemplating like, ‘oh wait, the culture doesn’t actually invite me to breathe, and now you inviting me to breathe…’ and so sometimes there’s dissonance with that for me. And ultimately I feel like if we have more space to breathe, than that equals liberation as I named before and then I, I do think it allows us to really witness what we’re doing and what we’re not doing, right? And I think the breath can actually allow us to live into the responsibility we’ve been talking about. Sometimes in asana practice I’ll say ‘let the breath lead the movement’ and I really mean like the physical posture, but I also mean a movement for social change, because what happens when I breathe is I’m able to slow down, and I’m able to reflect on thoughts, and I’m able to like, assess ‘are these thoughts things I’m making up in my mind?’ Right, ‘are they true?’ I’m able to connect with my heart when I breathe, I’m able to connect with my intuition, I’m able to connect with, I call this like the ability to remember to remember, and when I say that I mean, I think all of us know what’s going on in culture; culture just puts pressure on us to forget. And there are so many things that can distract us from actually opening our eyes and being able to see or feel what’s going on around us and how misaligned, how deeply misaligned the culture is: because of the violence and because of saying some people are better than others, and because people are profitting materially off of these norms, saying some people are good and some people are bad or some people deserve to be exploited and others deserve to be resourced. And so, the breathe in itself is a powerful practice, so more of that, right? As long as it’s like in service of us, being a different way, and challenging what dominant culture has set up for us.
Jo Stewart: And that really leads me into this question that I’ve had in my mind for a while, as a white lady, yoga teacher, and if it’s ok I’d love to read a little passage from your book because I think you just sum it up so beautifully and so powerfully: “the Westernised practice of yoga has avoided the conversation about oppression and privilege because it sees itself as a practice that transcends dominant cultures, toxic narratives and norms. It sees itself as an all-inclusive practice, doing good for the mind and body, without the need to reflect and study the ways in which it is perpetuating institutional oppression.” And I think sweeping all of that stuff under the rug is toxic and I also have questions about when and how is it appropriate to have these conversations, especially as a white person, teaching to a diverse group, because I’m not sure if it’s my place to raise this stuff when maybe I’m re-traumatising someone in the class who’s just come there for respite, and I’ve definitely been in classes where the teacher has had good intentions to explore an aspect of philosophy, but it’s just really clumsy and it just doesn’t ring true because you just get the sense that they’re saying it because it feels like the right thing to say, not something that’s innately from their lived experience.
Michelle C Johnson: Mmmhmm mmhmm. Yeah this came up, it comes up all the time, um in workshops, like ‘how do I integrate this into my class?’ Right, ‘cause people are like, in a workshop, right, they’re not in their 75-minute or 90-minute class teaching, and when I, when they hear me do it, sometimes it seems like I’m doing it with great ease, and part of that’s because of my background and what I’ve studied and what I’ve lived, right? But it’s not easy. And it’s not easy to bring up these conversations in a culture that doesn’t want us to have a conversation, right, about what is actually happening and where we’re located in that. And so, I think it’s a good question though, because the question this weekend was like, ‘how do I do this in a trauma-informed way?’ And my response was like, well all of us are traumatised by the culture, I just assume we’re traumatised by the culture in some way because of how it’s been constructed. The way we embody the trauma is different. So that was my first response to the question, which I thought was a really good question. And the second part of my answer was about authenticity, so, and intention, so if I’m going to go to a class and talk about justice and, you know folks didn’t sign up for a class on justice, right, they signed up to move through an asana practice, then, ‘what’s my intention?’ right, ‘why am I gonna bring up justice in this context? How will I share why it’s important to me?’ And ‘how will I inspire others to begin to be curious about justice or about the themes that I’ll bring into class, right: humanity, wholeness, noticing when we’re misaligned and what it means to come home to ourselves and move back into alignment?’ Those are just some of the themes that I’ll bring up. So I have to be like, saying it from, I have to have sat with it, first of all, and really thought about ‘how does this connect with me?’ because I’m gonna talk to people about it and I’m going to lead them through an experience, and they may be somewhere very different than me as far as their understanding of the importance of us talking about justice.
Jo Stewart: Mmm.
Michelle C Johnson: And so that was the second part, and the third part was that at some point, I talked about The Gita and I said Arjuna had to make a choice about what, what he was going to do, right? And he chose to live into his dharma. At some point we have to make a choice, we are not neutral, and it might be clumsy and we can even say, ‘I’m gonna talk about something I haven’t talked about in my yoga classes before, because I’m thinking about this practice of yoga in a different way and this is probably going to be clumsy and messy…’ and doesn’t the practice of yoga have the capacity to hold our messiness, right? And all of the contradictions that will arise, right and all of the layers and all of the dissonance, and all of the, I think like depth and curiosity that comes from taking a risk that I, you know in the way that I’m talking about. And so I think being transparent, so there’s like intention, authenticity, understanding all of us are traumatised even when we’re not talking about it, understanding these dynamics are alive even when we’re not talking about, they’re playing out in the yoga room even when we’re not having a conversation about them, because we have different people coming into classes, right, with different identities and lived experiences. So like, all of that’s at play. We need to make a choice and at some point we need to take a stand, and sometimes we do that verbally and sometimes we do it with how we structure the asana practice or the meditation, and sometimes I do it by saying, you know, ‘this is not an exercise class and if that’s what you want, that’s not what I’m teaching, but you can exercise, right, like cool, and I’m offering something that’s much bigger and this practice is about something much bigger than you and your individual experience.’ I say that in almost every class, not workshops. I do say it there too, but I’m not gonna be like in a 60-minute class, I’ll say that, so dedicate your practice to something bigger than you. Even that, which sounds subtle isn’t subtle, right? Talking about the breath and the ways in which people don’t have the space to breath is not subtle. Especially when we’re moving people and their nervous system is open in a way that it’s not at other times, right, ‘cause the spiritual practice allows us to like, sync in to the nervous system and to calm the nervous sytem and to just be open in ways that we may not, that the culture doesn’t allow us to be when we’re busy and distracted and moving without thinking. And so I think, you know, be messy and be clumsy and be transparent about it because it’s new, just like the practice of yoga. Right? So the practice of talking about justice or whatever is important to you at a class, is a practice, just like the first time I went in to a yoga class and I didn’t know what plank or down dog was or the difference, and I’m inbetween something that’s like plank and down dog, right, and I’m in pain, my shoulders hurt because I’m not actually pressing my heals down to the ground, right, and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but I’m still trying to breathe. Same thing, in my mind, when we wanna talk about these issues that we’re exploring right now.
Jo Stewart: Yeah I think that’s really great advice and absolutely in tune with the practice of yoga, and I think even just the idea of, as a teacher, acknowledging that this is new for me, it could be messy, it could be clumsy, really goes a long way because I think the classes that I’ve been in when someone has tried something and it really hasn’t landed and it’s felt really awkward, is when it’s been someone else’s words and someone else’s work and they’ve just kind of plonked it into their class because it feels like they should, when it’s not actually an authentic expression of something they’re feeling at that moment.
Michelle C Johnson: Right, right, yeah. I’ve seen that a lot and part of that’s like we’re mimicking other people, right, as we’re trying to learn and, but everyone, I say this all the time, people know when you’re not, when I’m not being authentic people know it, they can hear it in my voice, if they can see me and they’re in space with me, they can see it, right, they can feel it, they know it. And I think I know when people are not being authentic, I’m pretty good at, you know, feeling like ‘oh something’s not aligned here’ right? They’re saying something that they don’t, and they don’t know why they’re saying it. And so that’s why I mentioned intention, like ‘why are you going to say the thing?’ like, ‘why now? Why are you going to talk about it? Why is it important?’ Those are some questions for us to sit with as we engage in this practice of centering the truth, right, and centering justice in spiritual spaces
Rane Bowen: Hello, Rane here just popping in to talk about our Patreon page. If you’re not sure what Patreon is, all it is is a way that you can help support the Podcast for as little as $1 a month. And we upload extra content there just for our supporters. I’ve uploaded a meditation I recorded recently so have listen to that, and it also helps support the funding of our episode transcriptions. We have just recently put up the transcription of our episode with Jesal and Tejal from the Yoga is Dead podcast, it’s a really good conversation and you can go and read that at our website podcast.flowartists.com so check it out.
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Alright, I think that’s all I’ve got to say for now, let’s get back to our conversation with Michelle Cassandra Johnson.
Rane Bowen: In your workshops, do you often encounter any resistance or push back from people that are there?
Michelle C Johnson: Yes! I’ve encountered resistance before, definitely in anti-racism workshops ‘cause I lead those outside of spiritual spaces as well, and then Skill in Action workshops. But I haven’t really experienced resistance that has shut down the process, and I think part of that’s because I’m used to resistance and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been leading anti-racism workshops for over twenty years, so I’ve heard a lot, I’ve seen a lot. Some things are predictable, and I have way of when someone is being resistant of, or they’re just feeling resistance, right, of, one acknowledging that it might come up and that it may be part of the process, and two that they want to think about, they want to practice discernment, which the yoga practice can help us with this, because they want to think about, you know, ‘do I wanna express my resistance in the large group?’ and ‘do I want everyone to organise and rally around my resistance, because that’s what I feel like I need?’ or ‘can I resource myself and respond to the resistance that’s arising for me, or any emotion that’s coming up for me?’ Right? So I invite people in to thinking about internal resources at the beginning of the workshop because I acknowledge some of what will be shared may feel triggering to people or upsetting to people, and part of that’s because I’m pretty direct, as I have been on this, our interview, right, I’m pretty direct about what I believe and I don’t really put a lot of words around the essence right, of what I want to share, I just say the thing. And I also think resistance is, it’s normal in a way, right, so I try to normalise that without inviting people into shutting down and shutting down the process. And I think that resistance is, in the context we are talking about, that’s part of conditioning, like ‘I feel uncomfortable, I don’t want to hear this, this teacher or trainer is talking to me about my identity, I’ve never talked about identity before, she’s telling me I have privilege, I don’t feel privileged’ right, like I can be with that because that feels very human to me, right, like it feels very, ‘I’m learning something new and I don’t like it, because it means I’m gonna have to do something, right, differently’, right, that’s what it means. And I think people know that, especially in spiritual spaces, because they’re engaging a spiritual practice which is asking them to be a different way, or at least to understand the ways they are right now, right? The way they are, the way they’re living, the way they’re being, the way they are in relationship. So I think resistance is normal, and the last thing I’ll say about this is that, I have had thoughts about, I’m public right, so the description will say things like, ‘we’re going to talk about white supremacy and oppression and cultural conditioning. We’re going to talk about divide and conquer and how the culture divides us and why. We’re going to talk about trauma’, right? All of that is written, which I feel like is trauma-informed. People sign up for it or they don’t. You know, it’s like you take that if you want to talk about it because I’m pretty clear about what we are going to talk about. I have had thoughts though about, that’s so public, like I’m a black woman doing this work in a political and cultural moment that is dangerous for black women and black people and people of colour and people who are trans and people who are gay and people with disability, right, all of the marginalised groups; it’s dangerous, right, to be in our bodies with these marginalised identities at this moment in time. So I have had thoughts about, you know is someone going to show up and cause harm in some way to me or to the space, because people are actually wanting to be in a space of learning about this. That’s a little different than resistance and, but it feels tied to it, it’s like the, it’s something beyond resistance, right, it’s like, I don’t want this to be happening, and so, I just wanted to name that because it relates to action for me actually. That this just is my soul work, like this is the work I’m meant to do, and so I’m going to do it and it does not come without risk. I am not fearless. I am afraid, not all of the time, but some of the time when I go into spaces and I’m going to teach Skill in Action. You know, there is a risk for me and I think that’s important for people to think about as they’re taking action. I still do the work, even when I’m afraid, and I think about what I need to resource myself to be able to do the work. Or the practice, it’s not work, right, to engage in the practice of Skill in Action so, as people think about the action they want to take, I invite them to think about ‘what are they are risking and what are they willing to risk?’ Those are the two questions, and what do they need, like if they’re going to take that risk, what resources do they need to support them, to hold them, to sustain them?
Rane Bowen: One of the things I do love about your book is that it’s very direct but it‘s also coming from a place of compassion, and given with what you’ve just told us about you know, the fear that you have, how do you maintain that directness and the compassion?
Michelle C Johnson: That’s, it’s a good question, I, ‘cause people ask it a lot, like, they’ll say, ‘you’re direct and fierce but you doing it from the heart’ or if something happens in the space I will intervene or interrupt, like if harm happens, I’ll intervene and interrupt, and I don’t always do it in the moment. Sometimes I’ll wait and then respond to it, it depends on what it is. I think that I learned how to be clear, direct, you know, honest and fierce in the sense of like, I’m gonna, I’m gonna say the thing or I’m gonna do the thing because it’s what’s being called for, not impulsivity but fierceness, ferosity and compassion. I think I witnessed my mother doing that, I’ve never actually thought about it this way, but I think, she was a Special Education teacher in a system that did not appreciate the children she was teaching. Her classroom became the container for many children that other teachers did not want to teach. She put her whole heart into caring for the children that she taught and she did more than like teach, right, the content. I think she was teaching them, the children, and I also think she was teaching the people that didn’t want those children, like how to be, she was modelling that. And she was pretty direct about that, right, and talking about how under-resourced the kids she worked with were, and the families she worked with, and in fact she would, you know, they’d miss the bus and she’d bring them home and feed them, and then I’d get in the car with her and we’d go and drop off the student, like who missed the bus, right, or they didn’t have money for the field trip and she’d pay for the field trip. She, she, I witnessed her living into her dharma and putting everything into it and I witnessed her standing up to people that made the children she taught invisible and made them feel unworthy. And so, I assume, ‘cause I’ve actually never said it this way, that I get this from her, like ‘aause I spent a lot of time in her classroom, so I think I get this directness about what is, like what is actually happening in this moment? Which can provide structure for people actually, which is what she did in her classroom… What conditions are okay in this space? Right so making people feel invisible is not okay, right, that’s an example of a condition that she was like, ‘that’s not actually happening in this space or in this school or in this system of education, and I’m gonna do something about that’ coupled with ‘I’m gonna,I’m going to care about these children that other folks don’t care about’ and sometimes their parents did care about them but because their parents had been in the system it was hard to express that care. So I think I got this from my mom, ‘cause that’s who I witnessed doing it all of the time, and taking risks doing it and doing it in a way that looked fearless, even though she wasn’t fearless.
Jo Stewart: Mmhmm. Your mom sounds really amazing, and what I’m really getting from your description of her is the direct connection between her intent to take care of these kids and to help them have better lives and to like, really fight this oppressive system, which I’m sure must have felt very daunting at times, but it sounds like she actually, her intent had an impact, like she really was changing people’s lives, and I’ve heard you speak before about the important difference between intent and impact. Would you like to speak a little bit about that for us now?
Michelle C Johnson: Yeah, it’s an important, it’s one of the assumptions that’s in the book and it’s at the beginning and then it’s in the ‘spiritual bypassing’ section of the book as well. And, this assumption and when I say assumption is, it’s part of what I believe, so it’s my agenda or belief system, it’s just one of the assumptions I have as I enter into spaces and facilitate spaces and co-create space with other people. So the idea is that our intentions do not guarantee a positive impact, and in fact we don’t necessarily have control over the impact and we need to be skilful in understanding that our intentions don’t guarantee the positive impact that I just named. So, I have, what I say is that I have good intentions most of the time, and the reason I say ‘most of the time’ is because I have unconscious bias. And so I don’t know when, sometimes I’m not clear that I have intentions that actually may be tied to harm, and it’s not that I want to harm people, right, or beings, it’s just that I’m not always aware of my intentions. I do know that I do, I have good intentions most of the time and I cause harm, and that’s the impact part. So I can have good intentions and still create harm and sometimes unknowingly, right, like unconsciously. And I’ll say that I only know that I’ve caused harm if I have a moment of reflection, like I’ve said something that I know has landed in a harmful way for someone or some people in the space because I can feel it and people stop breathing, right, and there’s this awkward like, response. That’s one way I’ll know. I’ll know if people tell me ‘this was the impact of your actions or your words’, right, this is, ‘or the conditions you put into place’. And then often, as I just named, I don’t know when I cause harm and I think that’s because the dominant culture doesn’t really have a good system for us to acknowledge harm when it happens, and to disrupt it and then to try to like, figure out what would repair look like in this moment. And so many things result from that: more harm, resentment, people being conflict avoidant, right. So many things come from our inability to be able to acknowledge harm. And the culture says, how it’s conditioned me is that if I have good intentions that is all that matters.
So, thinking about my mom, all of the other teachers in that school were school teachers, like they were educators, which is not an easy job. And so I imagine they believed they had good intentions, and they were doing good work, and I believe they were doing good work, and still, because they didn’t want the kids in their classroom that they’d send to my mom’s classroom because they were behaviour issues, they were acting out in class, right? They didn’t fit the norm of the class, right? They were sending these kids to my mom’s room, that causes harm. So the impact was harmful, even as they were doing work that I think was really well-intentioned. And I always say in workshops or in spaces that our work is to pay attention to the impact, especially when people who are most marginalised are telling us that we have harmed them, right? We need to listen, like that’s the practice and yoga has taught me a lot about listening, so it means being undefended, right, it means receiving what someone is saying to me, when I hold the privilege, especially when I hold the privilege and power in that situation and they’re being hurt by me or something that’s in place in the space or other people in the space, right, or some policy I’ve put in place that’s causing harm that I did that was well-intentioned. So I think that it’s so important, you know people, we’ve been talking about action, ask about action all of the time. When action or skills offers, pay attention to the impact. Pay attention to when harm happens and no one says anything. And you feel it in your body and then think about how you could at least name that harm happened. And the way you could name is to say, ‘something just happened, I’m not exactly clear what it was, but this is how I’m feeling in my body, I feel dis-ease in my body. I feel like there’s something that’s disconnected and we’re about to move forward and I think we may wanna pause. How are other people are feeling?’ Right? That’s what, it, you know, people can do it in a different ways, that’s an example of what it could look like. So I think it’s a, it’s a skill to interrupt the pattern of moving forward to content or moving forward with the meeting or moving forward with the asana practice, or the meditation cues, right, or whatever we’re facilitating. It can cause harm when we do that and instead I think we can pause and ask ‘what’s going on? What did ya’ll notice in that moment? ‘cause I think something, someone just got hurt or something was said that caused harm’. And I don’t want to set up the idea that I always interrupt harm because I don’t, because I don’t always see it, I don’t always know what’s happening. And sometimes the conditions in the place, in the space I’m in will define how quickly I intervene and I do think it’s something that people who’ve been in space with me, they would say that I actually do the, fair amount model what it is like to, what it means to name impact and to slow down enough to be with it, because the culture, dominant culture says ‘never talk about the impact of the history that’s been set up, and how we’ve landed where we are right now, right, culturally and politically, don’t talk about that, right, don’t talk about how we came to be and don’t talk about where we’re from and that it means something’. Instead, be in spaces and act like those things I just named are not powerful and they have no meaning, right. They have a lot of meaning. So, that was a lot about intent and impact but it feels like a skill to be able to practice, ah to know intent does not equal impact and then to name impact or to listen to it.
Jo Stewart: it’s really powerful as well the way that you don’t have to know what happened to be able to open up space to talk about it, because I think that’s something that hasn’t occurred to me before to just pause and just check in. Because I think especially as teachers and facilitators, it definitely is our habit, to just keep going, rather than to actually check in, and I think it’s also a bit of a habit to just have that outward persona that we know the answers, even though we know that we don’t, but it’s so powerful to be able to stop and yeah, just open up that space for dialogue.
Michelle C Johnson: Yeah and I think, you know, in so many spaces that doesn’t happen ‘cause we don’t think we have time to stop, right, like we don’t think we have time to pause because there are goals for the meeting or whatever it is, right, there’s an outcome, we need to get somewhere, we need to be efficient, right, we need be to be effective - and we need to redefine what effective means. And we also need to focus on relationship and the process and know that harm’s, we’re not in a harm-free culture, like harm’s happening all of the time. Ao it’s definitely going to happen in the spaces we inhabit right, it’s gonna show up and we’re gonna harm people. And I think it’s sort of liberating, I don’t want to hurt people, and it’s also liberating for me to know, alright harm’s happening, I’m gonna cause harm and it’s not my intention to do that, and I’m also gonna to talk about it when I understand it’s happened or when I feel something in the space, right? And I think yoga, the practice of yoga, feels so related to this, because, I said this in a room the other day, when I’m injured and I have, I’m practicing asana, my options are to push through that injury and hurt myself more, right? Or to pay attention to the injury, right, give it the attention it needs, so I can heal. So if I think about intent and impact and harm, right? We can cause more harm by pushing past it and by not naming it, or we can heal through talking about it and trying to set up conditions for repair.
Rane Bowen: I was wondering if we could just ask you one final question, and that question is, if you could distil everything that you’ve learnt and everything that you teach down to one core essence, what do you think that one thing would be?
Michelle C Johnson: It is remembering our, I said it earlier, remembering our divinity and humanity and our right to be whole and, through that, remembering our connection to shared humanity and the divinity in others and our duty to create spaces where people feel whole.
Rane Bowen: Beautiful.
Jo Stewart: Yeah that’s so powerful, thank you so much for everything that you’ve shared with us.
Rane Bowen: And that was our conversation with Michelle Cassandra Johnson. I hope you enjoyed it, I know I did and I think that lately there is a lot of anger and division going on, especially on the internet, and what I love about Michelle’s approach is that she’s honest, she’s direct, she’s unflinching, she speaks truth to power, she just tells it like it is, but there is this underlying current of compassion and I think that’s really important. It’s really taught me that I need to, I guess, be a bit more mindful of the way that I receive information and in turn, put things out there, so thank you again to Michelle for your wisdom and your honesty and just for sharing what you do with the world.
Next episode, we have an amazing guest and that is Tristen Rose. He’s got an amazing story of conquering adversity, he’s an inspirational human being so I can’t wait for that episode to come out and that’ll be in two weeks’ time. We’re back to our fortnightly schedule so, again well look out for that in two weeks.
I wanted to thank and honour the traditional custodians of the land where this Podcast is recorded, the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation.
And a bit of a side note here, but if you haven’t read it already, please read Dark Emu by Bruce Pasco. It’s an amazing important book, it’s about the agricultural practices used by the First Nations people of Australia. It goes against what is commonly, I guess, propagated in our history books, it’s an amazing peace of work, it uses the words of the colonial settlers themselves, so it’s got some really interesting stuff there and I think that everyone should read it. It’s, yeah it’s really good <laughs>
Thank you so much for listening, Jo and I really appreciate you spending your time with us, arohanui, big big love.