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A Moment with Dages Juvelier Keates

For Dages Juvelier Keates, yoga is not about enacting beautiful poses; it’s about enacting beautiful lives.

The onetime dancer—with a B.A. from Bard College—mistreated her body until she began to discover the connectivity between physical and mental health and an attuned sensitivity to the world—a kindness to oneself, a mindfulness about what surrounds, a oneness with other people, animals and plants. A scholar and student in the true sense of the words, Keates plumbed the depths of practices from Bihar and Kundalini yoga to ultra-Orthodox Judaism in search of true spiritualism. She went on to earn an M.A. in interdisciplinary gender and performance studies from NYU.

Ultimately, she was able to marry the best of what she discovered as a syncretic yoga teacher. During her classes, she makes it her responsibility to discover the successes and struggles of her students—both physically and wholly—and help them understand the possibility of new paths. She guides workshops and retreats around the world with the likes of Elena Brower, Katonah teacher Abbie Galvin, Sacred Fig founder Anton Brandt and Sky Ting co-founder Chloe Kernaghan.

Here, Keates explains why she’ll take joy over happiness any day:

Live The Process: Have you always been interested in yoga and wellness?

Dages Juvelier Keates: I actually hated yoga the first time I tried a class. I was a kid, and we had an Iyengar teacher who lived in our garage in Wyoming. My dance training seemed to be antithetical to what she was asking us to do: Feel my body? Why? Why reawaken sensitivity to sensation? I thought it better to steel myself from pain in order to be a good dancer. I understood my body to be an instrument for someone else’s choreographic expression. My dance training enabled me to express, emote and participate in an art world for which I was happy to sacrifice myself—until, of course,  I wasn’t.

By the time I was 18 at Bard College, I was sick all the time. A year after my stepfather’s suicide, I had chronic bronchitis and was smoking a pack of Marlboro Reds a day—not seeing the connection. I was traumatized, alienated from the sensations in my body, constantly hungry and unable to eat. I had committed to making my body/self into something that looked good and desirable for others, hoping to gain safety by crafting myself into what I thought people wanted or needed. I was very distant from knowing how I actually felt, and teachers began to point that out to me.

I took an anatomy class by dance artist Debra Noble. She taught us basic pranayama formulas and asked us to practice daily constructive rest while simultaneously keeping a body journal. She loaned me Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford, which I used to start understanding how some of the traumas in my life were playing out in my body and behavior. It had never occurred to me to be kind to myself or to make effort at self-care. In a funny way, the journey back from dissociation into sensate feeling felt magical, otherworldly. I committed to these sensitivity-inducing and meditative practices and started learning about food and plants.

LTP: How did you come to find and value Bihar and Kundalini specifically?

DJK: An incredible teacher and choreographer named Susan Osberg taught Kundalini yoga in the midst of her modern dance classes. We would chant before improvisation sessions and use meridians as fodder for our dance research. I liked getting high on mantras with the group, getting “into the pocket” and experiencing what we called “the hook up.” There was this kind of permeable sense of oneness that would move through our individual bodies, dancing and sensing, listening and grooving together in electric energetic presence. I liked the intensity of the breath of fire and the formulaic nature of Yogi Bhajan’s techniques. Of course, when I read his texts, I was plagued by the regressive, unapologetic tone-deafness to sex and gender, but not enough to throw me off the scent completely.

As soon as I graduated, I tried to do my first teacher training with the Kundalini organization 3HO at Ghost Ranch. I had signed up in the early days of the Internet and there was a technological snafu—a mercury retrograde moment, if you will—and I was shunted to the waitlist. I ended up having to find another training as I had already packed up my life and had one plan: Go West! I wanted the ashram experience; I desired the desert and intense practice. Ultimately, I found a training in Sedona, Arizona run by two Kundalini-practitioners-turned-Bihar-sannyasins.

The Bihar material (while, of course, also riddled with scandal and terrible behavior) felt both very containing and mystical. Like Kundalini, every question came with an answer; every practice had a purpose. I appreciated its cohesive narrative, contiguous with an ancient, austere, formidable lineage. The rules were very strict, but that structure worked well for me: awake at 4am, cold shower, shatkarmas (including “purging” a liter of salted warm water!), mantras and meditations to follow all before asana, followed by breakfast. No contact with outside friends or family, no drugs, no sugar or sex—the list goes on. The rigor seemed virtuous and compensatory for the precocious, precarious, provocative life I’d been living!

Aside from the vomiting and massaging of salted mustard oil into our gums, many of the practices were very subtle, nuanced and full of imagination. Our studies were supported by eccentric and exceptional characters from deep in the New Age of the American nineties: shamans and healers with didgeridoos, crystals, plant magic, subwoofers, rhythmic dunking in water, color-infused perfumes and even the treatments of a 26-year-old cat.

A year and a half later, I completed my second 200-hour training within the world of Kundalini yoga. As before, I loved the rigor and the intensity, the fervent yearnings of practitioner/parishioners, the passionate desire to be clean and good, wholesome and holy. This time however, the hypocrisies between aspiration and action—and dissimulation on the part of  teachers and leaders—made participation in the community unbearable for me. I witnessed and experienced the behaviors that have thankfully given birth to #metoo and felt betrayed and devastated by people I had admired.

Believing better boundaries make better neighbors, I continued my quest for intensive, truthful, spiritual experience straight into ultra-Orthodox Judaism. I spent the next many years in a rigorous study of Torah and philosophy, teaching yoga and meditation in and around Hasidic and other orthodox communities in Jerusalem and Brooklyn.

LTP: How would you define your teaching style in terms of fusing the lessons you've gleaned from all that you’ve studied?

DJK: My current teachings are very deeply informed by my relationship with Nevine Michaan, founder of Katonah Yoga, whose myths, maps and metaphors have saturated my praxis. Katonah  Yoga is a Hatha yoga practice that is, at root, deeply syncretic: Nevine has drawn on decades of study across traditions in yoga, Taosim, western esoterica, geometry and more, to craft an embodied philosophy that I have found to be riveting, rewarding and powerful. One of the aspects of Nevine’s approach that I find most admirable is that her technique aspires to be “open source”—no one teaches solely “Katonah Yoga.” There is no such thing. People teach the material they own and the practice they do, so, in order to become a Katonah Yoga teacher, you must already have a background in another lineage. Nevine’s material is meant to be a strand in the weave, a thread in the garment, an ingredient in the unique recipe that can only be whipped up by the individual teacher and practitioner. This makes for teachings that are personal expressions of creativity, gleaned from the insights of each teacher’s own durational embodied research.

My teaching draws on aspects of immersions in variegated demimondes: ashrams, yeshivas, art worlds, academia, meditation retreats and plant medicine circles. These divergent, often paradoxical forays and experiences have led me to embrace certain values in teaching yoga. Group classes blossom open in an atmosphere of humor, playfulness and enthusiasm with adjustments coming from respect, empathy and precision.

If teaching a group class is like conducting a symphony, teaching a private is like tuning an instrument. In order to tune, you have to listen to the instrument. In my work with privates, my focus shifts to becoming a student of my student, so that I might be a more specific teacher of technique. I believe that all yoga is therapeutic. When I am working one-on-one with someone, I attune to them; I use my training to empathize, read, surrender to and feel through their self-organization. I utilize my mind/body to read what it is to be in this human being’s somatic orientation. And then I look to see: where do they want to go?

My job is to see where a person’s blindspots are and do what I can to help him or her coax a glimmer of what else might be available. I want to appreciate everything that each person is already doing beautifully in order to hold it together in life, which is inevitably not fair and, at times, very difficult for everyone. My task is to show my student what he or she has mastered and which skills have already been developed. I want to empower a person to see his or her competency and, from that place, we turn to see what else might be possible. What can I do to adjust someone in order for them to sensorially perceive that there are other natures available than the one they have developed? Where can I help them find more somatic choices, more haptic happenings, so that they might experience ease in their form, function in their organs, a catching of the breath? How do I support their geometry to be formidable, functional, to find that they fit themselves, that they fit into the world?

It is in the space between us where something new arises, a dance between aspirations and archetypes. A pose sings when the geometry is integrated, when there is current moving through it in the form of pleasure, yearning and imagination. That said, my ultimate goal is not to teach a person how to do a great looking pose. My goal is to help a person use a yoga practice to have a good life. One’s body is not a problem or a project, but the remarkable ephemeral home to our lives.

LTP: Aside from practicing yoga, do you have rituals, practices or wellness obsessions that keep you feeling healthy and balanced?

DJK: Daily meditation practice (I love Tara Brach as a guide), herbal medicine (my teacher is the magical Robin Rose Bennet) and long, very hot salt baths are go-to rituals for me. I cook with fu-zheng every day to bolster my immunity. I talk with friends who don’t try to change my feelings. I nurture relationships and take time to be alone. I write and read, make and see art. I do like attending yoga classes, especially with Nevine and the elders at Katonah Yoga Center. In New York City, I favor classes with Abbie Galvin, from whom I have learned so much, and her teachers at The Studio, or the wonderful community at Sky Ting. I have been in psychoanalysis for many years, make sure to get good, rich time with my mentors and try to educate myself. I attend reading groups and listen to lots of interviews with authors on the New Books Network.

To nourish my soul and stimulate my sensorium, I wildcraft and make herbal medicine. Time outdoors, communing with the plant allies in my garden, in a city park, a forest or the sea make me feel connected to the universe. I value interspecies contact and conversations with beings who occupy different time signature. These thick interactions put me in touch with the slow bloom of my bones, the intergenerational archive of my body, which—like the earth—is the place where life is happening from and within. I can make healthy contact with others when I am grounded inside of my own flesh, my own circumstances, and making contact with integrity is a big piece of what I understand being a teacher to be about. We can really make a difference to the planet and to each other when we can tolerate complexity and aliveness in ourselves and in another person at the same time.

LTP: What does happiness look like to you?

DJK: This might sound strange, but I believe that the pursuit of happiness as a state is an obsessive delusion of our culture. I am more interested in joy. Joy is sparked. Joy is found. Joy is dynamic and ephemeral. You have joy when you are also available to experience grief. You find joy when you have the ability to experience anything to feel everything, to be human. Joy can be found by actively reorienting oneself in life, making active change in one’s circumstances to participate in the world, to feel potent and vital by intervening in the natural course of things. One can also find joy by surrendering to life, allowing it happen without belligerence, un-holding into the magnificent mystery of it all.  

LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?

DJK: Birth and death are the two ideas that we narrate life in between. Everything that happens between those concepts of identity is consciousness embodied. That unique consciousness is molded by material histories, both personal and collective that hold habits, patterns, grooves, samskaras. These forms may be perceived as “real, but not true,” as Tara Brach might put it. All forms that are organic deform, transform. Forms that exist in time are plastic, porous, constantly shifting, seeping, exceeding their bounds.

Turning towards reality is living the process. Landing in the thickness of here and now is always a verb. We are never still. When we question what we really are, we find that we are an ecology of selves, biological (DNA, yeasts, viruses, parasites, bacteria) and otherwise (social, sonic, spatial). Every breath we take is an interchange between that which we perceive as being “me” and that which is everything else. Through this process, we inhale the out breath of hawthorn trees; we exhale and nourish botanical beings. To me, living the process means consciously participating in the magnificence of materiality with awe and respect, delight and responsibility, for ourselves and each other.