A yogi of over 20 years, Katie Cercone is a radical creative, scribe, priestess and spiritual gangsta hailing from the blessed coast. She has led classes in studios, gardens, women’s shelters and arts venues throughout the US, UK and Asia. Katie’s transformational work lies under a sacred canopy of co-created ritual and magic to align with higher consciousness. Katie is formerly co-leader of Go! Push Pops feminist collective and currently creative director of ULTRACULTURAL OTHERS: Urban Mystery Skool. She is a pioneer with her partner UNDAKOVA of Hip Hop Yoga.
YOTR: First off, could you describe yourself to us? We would like to get a sense of your roots… race,$$, gender, religion, other important identities.
KC: I identify as a queer, sex-positive feminist radical and spiritual gangsta. I grew up in sunny suburban California. My family had new age leanings with the trappings of good old neoliberal American individualism. My father was a doctor who meditated every morning. He brought me to Yogananda’s ashram when I was a teen to practice. My Mom and I practiced yoga at the private health club down the street and I was a natural from a young age. My family was materialistic on some new money 1980s American Dream Reaganomics -ish. While Brooklyn was dealing with the War on Drugs, we were warding off pharmaceutical THUG$. Most of my family was heavily medicated in the aftermath of Clinton stealthily removing the laws prohibiting corporations to market their pills direct to the consumer. I was baptized Catholic but that was mostly a formality, and we almost never attended church together as a family. Both my parents retreated from their ancestry’s cultural devotion to the patriarchal church but somehow our family kept the stain of the shame and body-negativity, often acting out the same mentality through food and consumerism. I was in eating disorder rehab by my sweet sixteen. I’m part Irish, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Italian. My father is supposedly full blooded Italian but I laughed when his heredity test came back part Black and Middle Eastern. He achieved the American dream in the sense of upward mobility and racial privilege. Italians and Irish where just two generations back considered non-white aka “European Negroes.” My people became white so to speak. My Mom has a strong spiritual leaning that blossomed in her forties and fifties. She deeply identifies as do I with the lineage of the Black Madonna (Black Earth Mother) and is a major healer and light-worker focused on helping women find their voices.
YOTR: And you are a yoga teacher. What does that mean to you?
KC: Chiefly I identify as a Yogi. Been practicing for twenty years, certainly before it was a spiritual practice for me it was a physical necessity. Later it blossomed into daily meditation, a way of life, an ethos to live and make art by. I started blending it with my art practice around 2011 when I envisioned a fusion of hip hop and yoga. Yoga is a life long path of liberation that is so much bigger than the quick fix asana practice we mostly get in studios here in the West. At the same time as my teacher Siri Rishi says, yoga is an energy – damn good thing its going into Walmart! Becoming the trend of basic bitches the world over because yes YOGA is a science of self-mastery for EVERYONE. It can heal every malady. It is a balm for deeply troubled times. The yoga that comes to mind for most of us in the West (asana) is preparation for deep meditation, liberation from craving and emotion as they say in Vipassana yoga. In many ways I feel disheartened that I’ve gotten such a broken transmission as a teacher in the West. Armed with my measly 200-hour YTT I’m teaching others based on my practice, knowledge and wisdom – what’s working for me. I don’t have a regular mentor and I often can’t afford the extra trainings and classes I want to take to grow on my current income. Even though I’m a western woman with a humbly limited understanding of the totality of yoga, I also feel inclined as a woman to explore yoga’s intuited herstory as I see it, and merge it with the energy of the divine feminine in resurgence. Even in India yoga was affected so much by patriarchy, women were banned from it up until the 1950s. The colonial presence of the British also greatly militarized the practice. Let’s imagine what it was back in the day, for instance when India and Africa were connected as one land mass and the Lotus flower was the symbol of Queen Mother Goddesses – Maiden, Mother and Crone – the cycle of life, birth and regeneration, the ouroboros snake biting it’s own tail.
YOTR: What is it like to teach yoga in a city full of white females teaching yoga? What are the pros and cons?
KC: At first I HATED this a lot. I didn’t like teaching classes for all white people. I didn’t like other white people. I didn’t like myself. I would rather bike to Brownsville (one of the poorest part of Brooklyn) and volunteer teach for a women’s homeless shelter there then teach the privileged, neurotic graphic designers of Williamsburg. And so I did for a while. It’s been hard trying to build the teaching into anything that can sustain my needs of survival without burning out or distorting the teachings to fit them into some major sales funnel. I remember applying to teach at a Brooklyn studio fresh out of YTT and the owner said “If I threw a rock I’d hit a yoga teacher the market is so saturated.” I’m happy everyone is getting certified, but I see it’s also the way yoga studios are paying the rent and what and why are we teaching??? Having taught for eight years now I see the yoga community here in NYC becoming more and more diverse, I see action groups like Decolonize Yoga and I see efforts. But yeah, the yoga economy mostly runs on unpaid labor and who has time for that? People who are of a certain comfortable economic position. Side note, the Western women are also killing it. We’re bringing down the patriarchy, I think Gandhi once said the Western women will save the world and yeah, we got to work with all this privilege we have. Western women live in a bubble where our gender, race and sexual preferences don’t necessarily make us a target of extreme daily acts of hatred, oppression and violence. This is not true in many parts of the world. We have a platform and resources here to breath the love and wisdom of yoga back into the world.
YOTR: How do you define appropriation in the yoga community? Where are instances that you have seen it? How do you respond?
KC: First of all, how do we define appropriation? Wouldn’t most of yoga we see in the West at this point be considered “appropriation?” Of course there are teachers, many that introduced yoga into the West in the 60s and 70s, often against the judgement of elder members of their community back home in India, or Americans that went to India and brought back more pure teachings that have been preserved in Ashrams or intentional community like settings. But all these forms of course transmorph slowly over time (as they have in India and Tibet and the world over)… yoga is alive in this way. The “wellness industry” – it’s trickier when you add the business aspect. The real argument against cultural appropriation from an Arts standpoint always comes down to exploitation, economic disenfranchisement and cultural erasure through whitewashing. For example, if you look at Yoga Journal you see a bunch of thin bodied cis white woman and nobody really questions that. When it becomes about sales and marketing, everything gets distorted at a serious level, and of course only a few yoga studio owners even really profit, with the landlords taking the lion’s share. Many studios go out of business in their effort to be ethical. Layer that with the more nuanced conversation around who owns yoga and who has the right to practice or participate or co-create its traditions and rituals. Some say only Hindus or only Indian people or only brown people. But all those are distinctions again, created by patriarchal authority of some kind. “India” itself being a fiction of the British colonizer. Yoga being the realm of the elite educated warrior classes of Indian men during the time most of the scriptures were written down. I feel like as a yogi of 20 years that I should be incorporating it into my art practice and life, and yes, here the practice shapeshifts through my lens as a creative class queer feminist sex-positive New Yorker. I’m a white person appropriating yoga on the one hand, and hip hop on the other.
In terms of the Hip Hop Yoga work which I’d doing with David, he’s a native New Yorker who participated in the birth of hip hop so I’m getting my cred and “permission” from a pretty undiluted source. UNDAKOVA might say something like no two hip hoppers agree to exactly what hip hop should be or is. The leaders that manage to carve out some sort of more concrete articulation of what Hip Hop is, are also the first ones to get called out for “selling out” or other abuses of power. Buddhist organizations have plastered Thailand with massive billboards that read “Don’t put our God Buddha on your t-shirt” kind of thing. Yes Buddha is not meant to be condensed down to a fashion statement and all the white kids on acid backpacking through Asia give us a bad reputation but I say don’t tell other people how to worship God, worship at the temple within. India was never one unified nation, it was a tribal land, a spiritual geography imbued with so many different nature-based spiritual traditions. In India everyone is God. When traditions become erased or watered down because someone wants to sell a product that’s sad, we’ve seen it with rap, we’ve seen it with yoga, virtually everything white-washed. It’s a valid argument. But I also want our conscious educated liberal community to stop personalizing this issue and flipping it to make attacks and project our anger and powerlessness onto those that could be our allies. A good question to ask yourself when engaging in cultural appropriation is why? What is your intention? What do you want to gain? Who gave you permission? Will your actions benefit or harm others?
YOTR: How does one spot a true teacher of yoga? What are the qualities of a genuine teacher?
KC: Patience, compassion, wisdom, love, one that embodies the practice. One that has an inner glow and twinkle in their eye. You can hear it in their voice, they have done the work to a certain extent and are still open to learning and growing. Humility – we are all still human and it is a long long many lifetimes path. They honor others’ truth and power. They encourage students to be their own best teacher rather than facilitating a sense of neediness or reliance on them as the teacher.
YOTR: Are there specific archetypes that you see in the yoga community? Any that you identify with? What about in the hiphop community?
KC: I’ve been pretty interested in the various God/Goddesses archetypes within the Hindu constellation, of course Kali and Shiva being an obvious favorite. And Ganesha who we recorded one track of our Hip Hop Yoga EP VITAMIX about. Both Shiva and Kali for me are archetypes that translate nicely into the context of Hip Hop as well. In the West (and globally) we’re still seriously recovering from this vision of a monolithic white male god and a neutered subservient sad Virgin Mary and we need fierce Gods to remind us to invoke our own inner ferocious. The lore around Shiva and Kali fascinates me endlessly. UNDAKOVA and I did a live performance where the soundtrack was a lecture I prepared on the mythology and ritual devotion to Lord Shiva. I also wrote an article “In Defense of the Linga” in which I talk about how “Today, with the (Western) ‘Rockstar’ having largely eclipsed the macrocosmic role Gods played within ancient societies, the imprint of archetypes long past still guide us to seek out spectral love. And in our superbly post-religious, post-modern, poster-boy carnivalesque consumption ball the internet and the phantom limbs of white male patriarchal capitalism have certainly created widgets on widgets to capitalize on our human need for faith. Our pop culture is pregnant with mythical figures found in the brain — the vocabulary of the psyche itself — that which structures our emotional physical, social, and spiritual realities.” For me Shiva is the archetypal queer rockstar. A Third millennium B.C. Harapaan seal features a hermaphrodite figure seated in Lotus, his feet crossed below an erect urdhva-linga. Buffalo horns decorate his headgear and four animals flank the central seated Lord. This depiction of Shiva (before he was Shiva) dates 2,000 years proceeding “yoga” and the famous 2nd century B.C. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Rounded breasts signify the feminine aspect.
YOTR: What is it like to be a white female in the hiphop community? What is it like to live in both worlds?
KC: Wow you know I could write a book. It all went down during my first decade living in New York City. An intense period of soul-searching and unhinged art-making in and around my Saturn Return, I was putting up the middle finger to white male patriarchy’s false power and “fishing for cool,” a cute euphemism I coined you could equate to “Jungle Fever,” although no one has yet adequately codified my generation’s changing
relationship to race, class, gender and sexuality. As a white girl from sunny suburban California, I was chomping at the bit for Black Cool. As bell hooks writes in Postmodern Blackness, “The overall impact of the postmodern condition is that many other folks now share with black folks a sense of deep alienation, despair, uncertainty, loss of a sense of grounding.” Afro-futurism, the Blipsters of nogenre and mumble Rap, the living, breathing and thriving Black Arts Diaspora of New York City would wield it’s paranormal power over me for many moons. I dove head first into Hip Hop history and Homo Hop, becoming a fan of Brooklyn favorites like Cakes da Killa, Cunt Mafia, Quay Dash and more. Often paralyzed by mountains of confusing racial guilt, with these rogue intersectional inquiries into Hip Hop Feminism and Black Girl Magic also came sleepless nights, lost friends, broken families and estranged relations. My thirsty pursuit of something at once so real and wickedly imaginary would wield a great boon, but not without sacrifice. A water sign won’t stay thirsty for long, no, a water sign is the tsunami. What I needed was to be burned, to watch my American dream go up in smoke, and most importantly, to feel the mother earth beneath my feet. Not to say I’m not attracted to Hip Hop for all of its fluid aspects be they spiritual, cultural, creative and community based. I always say that I saw in rappers an archetype for expressing my repressed anger and embodying my sexuality, understanding that limiting black artists to sexuality and anger also promotes negative stereotypes and talks about this overall mindfuck that race establishes… that which is white cannot be black and vice versa. Amidst the mall-maze of techno-capitalism’s many guises and cultural industries I came naively thinking I could both escape and destroy, it was through the dialogues, interactions, confrontations and collaborations with hip hop community folks/POC/ black artists that I would slowly move from “Girl on the Treat Tip” to “Trap $onogram” to High Prieztezz Or Nah, spiritual gangsta, pioneer of Hip Hop Yoga.
Learning to tread water in poisonous atmospheres and boxing in the matrix against the hypocritical chicanery of the mass culture… With Saturn in Scorpio, a large part of my work crystallizes around bringing the power of consciousness back to sexuality, healing and the transformational potential of sex, both its erotic and astral limits. And yeah, I’ve been called out for cultural appropriation at times, or had to rethink the way that I approach for instance writing about black artists or curating a show about hip hop as a white person. In some ways I’m hyper visible in other ways no one can really even see me as a female MC because of my whiteness. I still can’t really see myself as an MC because of my whiteness, and I’ve been making attempts to also self-reflexively speak to my race in my rhymes.
YOTR: How has yoga benefited you in your life?
KC: I used to be so anxious and that is something that has completely turned around slowly over time. I also find that I have my own purposeful inner compass. It’s harder for me to get caught up in someone else’s thing. I am able to witness my emotions rather than fully become overwhelmed by them. I see the old patterns and gently restructure them toward a higher vision. I let go on a regular basis of what is no longer serving me. I have more love and compassion for myself and fellow human beings, certainly more patience. My body stays strong and fit without having to be concerned with the more narcissistic aspects of fitness as many of us become in such a beauty-centric culture. Yoga is my makeup, every day I wake up and rock that inner glow.
Upcoming events at ULTRACULTURAL OTHERS urban mystery skool
Dream Beat: Naked Archer a New Moon Wellness Ritual November 30th
High Priextexx Hip Hop 4-week intensive workshop January 2020
Follow Katie on instagram @0r__nah_spiriturlgangsta @ultraculturalothers
Yogis on the Road is a podcast operated by two yogic practitioners based in New York City. They seek to illuminate the paths of yoga all over the world and explore how yoga manifests in different forms, across culture, history, practice and Presence. They can be contacted on instagram at @yogis.ontheroad and their podcast, featuring Ultracultural Others as well as many other wise individuals, can be accessed at www.yogisontheroad.podbean.com or found on Apple/Spotify through Yogis On the Road.