Shifting Shapes

I don’t have the artist information for this sculpture, but i can tell you I saw it at this year’s SOFA Chicago, and they’re represented by Nils Gallery in Paris. They were at stall 301. 

I don’t have the artist information for this sculpture, but i can tell you I saw it at this year’s SOFA Chicago, and they’re represented by Nils Gallery in Paris. They were at stall 301. 

I have flat feet. Like, flat feet. I make rectangles in the sand when I walk, not those cute little seven-shaped footprints. My balance in standing postures is shit. For years, people have offered me advice about what to “do” about my flat feet: I should be wearing shoes with high arches, or shoes with no arches, or no shoes at all; I should engage mulabhanda all the time because my flat feet are due to a collapse that runs from my pelvic floor down my inner thighs, collapses in my ankles and sinks my big toes forward and my arches down; I should stand on this hard rubber ball two minutes a day, per foot. I should tuck my toes under in this pose, press my heels down in that pose. If only I can engage enough and were stronger, lighter, tighter, if only I had enough will, I could change.

This is not a post about asana.

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Man, sometimes this shit is hard to write about.

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As a young woman, I lamented to my mother that I never heard from guys simple sentences, like, hey, I like you. I think you’re smart and funny and cute. Can we go out? “Why won’t a guy just talk to me like a person, why all the game playing and engineering?” I would whine to her. My mother explained that it just doesn’t work that way with men. There’s a dance, a whole litany of unwritten rules that I’m responsible for knowing, and agreeing to play, and not knowing them can result in results for me, often treacherous or capricious because they were being dolled out by beings with fragile egos who don't take rejection well.

For her part, my mother was always trying to dress me better: shorter skirts, tighter jeans, even some lipstick, something to indicate to prospective boyfriends that I had a shape, a body, and was interested in sharing it with them. She was always saying what a “hot little body” I had, and that I should show it off, at school, at work (without sacrificing my professionalism), at church (though be careful here because doing so could cause a man to sin), even going to the grocery school or getting on a plane.

My mother taught me this. A bright woman, seemingly self-possessed of her own power, confidence, and dynamism. And even in her, this rhetoric of dressing for other people is so strong she passed it down to future generations.

Because we teach boys that girls wear red lipstick and tight tops and short skirts because they want you, regardless of how they actually treat you, and we don’t teach them to say, hey, I like you, can we go out, or wow, you say such smart things, I like listening to you talk, and also, I like watching your mouth say such brilliant things, would it be okay if I kissed you. Instead, we teach boys that when a girl dresses a particular way it means you can touch her however you want, her consent be damned.

*

I lost my virginity not so much as an act of consent, as an act of resignation. There was no emphatic Yes, but instead I just wearied of saying No. Which just goes to show you: if at first, she won’t put out, try, try again.

*

Transformation is a big part of the yoga zeitgeist marketing. 30-day posture challenges, give us THREE WEEKS and watch your ab flab become a ROCK HARD SIX-PACK, your body can be this body. We want to change ourselves, we want to change each other. What’s not a big part of the transformation marketing is how hard change management really is. Some of us are familiar with samskaras, the ditches of habit that live inside us. (No judgement here: the habit of drinking water or choosing a salad over fresh fries or sitting with your mind for 20 minutes a day is a habit just like the pint of ice cream after a tough day or smoking a bowl the moment our coats and shoes are off. The habit of self-reflection borne out of anger is just as real as the habit of defensiveness borne out of anger.) These patterns are deep, carved by repetitive action, by powerful emotions, by family and cultural practices (curses?) arguably by past lives. They don’t just go away after a month of our red x's on the calendar and Instagrammed practice pics.

I’m trying to figure out how we change. How do we define positive change? How do we define rest that is legitimately restorative from rest that indicates collapse, weakness, overextension? How do we clarify the difference between a change that feels exhilarating, empowering, like the freedom of flying, from a change that creates instability, displacement, a quality of feeling deranged? How do we define and identify negative change?

Seems to me the first key here is the pronoun.

We.

The power of community is significant. Some portion of assessing what is transformation that is useful and distinguishing it from transformation that is damaging is the community we collect around us. Sometimes we trust the person or people we have around us—a lover, a trusted friend, a family member—to speak into our lives with compassion and discernment and help us assess if a change we’re making or have made is positive or destructive; sometimes we don’t even know that we need these people to speak into our lives, and they do, and we’re grateful for what they see and how it can help us. Sometimes these dear people see and speak into our lives, and the truth they witness is too hard for us to hold, and we deny it, or lash out at them, or get defensive by attacking their weaknesses instead. 

That feels like a bit of a big deal, right? You gotta know that your community can hold you in love and in truth, because if they’re all caught up in their own bullshit, they’re gonna treat your vulnerability and mistakes like fodder for judgment and abuse, and kick the shit out of you.  Communal accountability isn’t for most of us: Americans love our individualism. We pride ourselves on that hardworking, bootstrap-pulling, sacrifice making, I’ve-worked-hard-to-get-where-I-am-and-now-I-have-come-up-so-don’t-touch-the-shoes-you-might-smudge-them narrative. The idea that anyone can look into our lives and say, hey, this choice you’re making might not be right for you, or right for me or others in our community… that’s a charged and difficult space.

Add the power dynamics of things like race, age, gender and privilege into this community and well, it’s poised to go right to hell, without enough integrity to keep it clean.

*

Men around us are failing. They are falling. I feel like I can’t turn around in a circle without seeing another group of folks step into the light about they way they were harmed, assaulted, attacked, or violated by another man. Specifically speaking, I love men: I love my man, I love the men I consider friends, I love the men I am related to, and be sure ALL of them, at some point, have been condescending, patronizing, or even misogynistic. But at this point, I’m not sure I can say about these men, he would never do that to me.

I hate feeling that way. I hate it.

My teacher would say, it’s never outside of yourself, so I have some work to do on my own fear, and freeing from it.

And, it’s a hard time to be a woman right now. Which is to say, it’s always been a hard time to be a woman. Because chastity belts and illegal abortions and the institution of marriage and polygyny* didn’t make this shit any easier.

I talk freely about white supremacy and how embedded it is in our culture (arguably as Americans, but I would say as a planet. I would say that the pervasive, viral, toxic effect of white supremacy that began centuries ago went global a long time ago).

(Listen, I gotta say this: because I talk about white supremacy a lot, it’s important to note that #metoo feels like a surge of shakti borne of the white feminist movement. Black women, women of color, we’ve had #metoo stories for decades. Fuck, our #metoo stories built America. And don't be a trans* woman of color; their #metoo stories are same shit, different day. Don’t misunderstand me: white sisters, share your stories, let the truth be revealed. But make fucking space for the rest of your sisters of color who have been saying “Me, too,” forever, and particularly about white men, while y'all cloak yourselves in your whiteness and abandon us. Don’t keep throwing us under the bus. Ahem, Lena Dunham. (no link here. If you want to know, find it when I'm done.))

Anyway, white supremacy. We carry it, all of us. White supremacy teaches us that there is such a thing as a “model minority”, that respectability politics will save our lives when we get pulled over, that white is a not just a metaphor for pure, clean, righteous and correct. But I am frankly, freaked out by the fruit of toxic masculinity that is ripening right now.

Angry. Fucking exhausted. Freaked out. And also unsurprised. 

Because toxic masculinity, like white supremacy, is a shape-shifter. Sure, the white nationalists are feeling bold given the shitshow at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (and Congress!), but this shit winds itself in our communities, our systems, our work in the most insidious ways. Though its results and effects are clear and stark, it’s skulking and slithering, and it leaves so much shame in its wake on its victims.

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I was maybe 30 years old. He was… older, a white man my senior by ten years or so. We were colleagues in an interdepartmental training at the art school where I taught creative writing and he taught arts management**. The training was about how we connect our disciplines—art, film, fiction writing, journalism, fashion—to the realities of identity politics: how do we teach tomorrow’s creative moguls to be more culturally literate, to broaden their scope of humanity, to care about how people of color, women, trans people, religious minorities, people on the margins, are portrayed and advanced—or not—in their art forms. It felt like God’s work we were doing. We wanted to help students be better artists, because we know that powerful art touches hearts, and touched hearts change lives, and changed lives change the world.

(I want to point out here, in pursuit of honesty and self-study, that some part of me still feels embarrassed and she is the part that wants to tell you that at this point in my life I was wearing my hair in long locks. It often got me a lot of attention. As if that will explain somehow what happened next. As if patriarchy and white supremacy and toxic masculinity aren’t enough of an explanation all on their own. #internalizedmisogynoir.)

We were in a circle in a common room. Lake Michigan sprawling, cool, distant, beckoned out the window. We were sharing our minds and our hearts, struggling, disagreeing, listening, working. We were in the middle of some kind of kinetic, thought-heavy, idea-driven, language-based musical chairs think-game. I don’t remember what it was. I don’t remember how to play. I only remember that somehow, at some point I was on my feet and he pulled me into his lap. In a room full of people, discussing pedagogy, he pulled me into his lap. I squealed and jumped up, trying not to fall over, avoiding his long legs in hiking boots, hoping that my laughter, the smile on my face, would sufficiently masked the horror that I felt. I didn’t want his attention, I didn’t want his compliments, I didn’t want to sit on his lap and feel his body against mine. I just wanted to talk about how to help my students understand why it was important to build ideas of race equity and gender identity into their stories. I just wanted to talk with fellow educators about how to awaken consciousness in our student artists, and why it was important to do so. And somehow, he undid all that.

Could anyone else in that circle see beneath my desperate urge to go along with things was a deep discomfort at this man’s attention and behavior? Could anyone else see my shame, my discomfort? Could anyone have helped, stepped into the space I couldn't occupy?

I don’t know. I can’t remember. I don’t remember any of the smart or challenging things others said in that workshop. All I remember is that his hands, his actions, his selfishness, stained me with shame.

I’m still washing it out of my hair.

*

As a teacher, I work hard at dismantling the power structures in play in the classroom space. Some of them I can’t do much about; but I try to be a human in my classroom. I’m not a greater authority on your practice or your body than you are. I don’t shield my students from my humanity; the more I teach, the more I find teaching to be a kind of exchange of energy. Here’s what I mean: a student who wants to be in class, who wants to study with you and learn with you, will bring out the best in you as a teacher, will ask you to hold space and rise up in your craft, and make you grow. They will bring their baggage into the room, and sometimes the practice (of asana, or writing, or ceramics or statistics or whatever) will help them shed it, and sometimes the practice will cause them to sling that baggage all over the room. They will give off energy, they’ll discharge as they pursue clarity, discovery, and ultimately transformation. My job as a teacher is to hold enough space that they can process and discharge as they need to, without harming others, and without taking their energy, their past, present or future, into myself. I gotta let them work it out, and reflect back what I see, and not let any of that shit stick to me at the end of the day. As teachers, we can hold that energy, but man, we can’t absorb it, and we sure as shit can’t need it. This makes the whole Social Media-Followers-hits-likes nature of our work particularly problematic. (Teachers, this means we gotta guard our prana like its fucking gold, but that’s a post for another day.)

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have issues in the classroom. I struggle with feeling rejected or mistrusted in class; my ego often gets in the way of how I can help others. There’s a lot of work for me to do around holding the boundaries of my role as teacher with integrity, and allowing folks who want less from me to take less from me, without feeling some kind of way about it.

A lot of work.

But because I am a person in leadership in the room (if not power, right, shifting sands of what it means to lead from up front, from behind, quietly, forcefully, etc.), my work is to not draw on the energy the students discharge with any kind of need from them: no matter how sad or lonely, desperate or empty, small or ugly I may feel on a given day/week/season, my job is to offer, to witness, to contain, and then, after all the class is over and all the students have gone, to shed and discharge completely so I can return to my own life and work my own shit out.

*

This is not easy work, the work of leadership. Even if the men in our world who are falling like so much timber were actually clean, had their own shit sorted so that they didn’t have to prey on women and folks, it would still be hard. But the sheer volume of dudes—fuckin’ dudes—who are being revealed as harassers, as predators, as assailants makes it clear that this isn’t just about this dude or that dude not dealing with his narcissism or insecurity or inadequacy (though there is no shortage of that, damn). It’s about the systems of power, of white supremacy, of toxic masculinity, that have perpetuated this damage and harm for centuries and across cultures. Systems this destructive require systemic change, and anger without direction doesn’t create change, it creates cathartic chaos.

We’re still at the bomb-throwing point of this revolution, a reactive stage at which nuance can go into hiding. But while anger can start a revolution, in its most raw and feral form it can’t negotiate the more delicate dance steps needed for true social change.
— TIME magazine, Person of the Year 2017 (see link above)

Some of us believe in the righteous, cleansing power of anger. Like fire. I believe in this. I also believe that anger untreated with direction, without vision and compassion and forgiveness, will harden and atrophy us into gnarled, incomplete versions of ourselves that no amount of practice will make soft and supple.

Sisters: you are angry. Me, too. (see what I did there?) I am angry with you. Be angry. Be angry as long as you need to, and not one moment longer. Do not be imprisoned by your anger. Do not lose track of the humanity of your assailant in your anger. Much as your pain and disappointment wants to paint him as a monster, don’t do it. That’s the easy thing to do, that’s the collapse into anger. Instead of collapsing into anger, ride it like a wave, and hold onto the idea that that totally fucked-up thing that he did hasn’t made him inhuman. More fucked-up, without question, and maybe even less human. He has earned the consequences of his deplorable, violent behavior. But he's not inhuman; for to lose track of his humanity is to lose a larger part of your own humanity, and nothing good comes of that. You aren’t helped, he isn’t helped, and equally important, that cycle of psycho-sexual vampirism is just perpetuated into the next generation. I am not telling us to calm down, that we're being hysterical, or overreacting. I'm saying that all of the shitty experiences we've had at the hands of dudes doesn't let us off the hook of doing our own svadhyaya

Brothers: Fuck getting your house in order, burn that shit down and start from scratch, because the shit you have "built" is fucking unacceptable. Evaluate every conversation you have had. Apologize. Mean it. Control yourself. Grow up. Ask first. Ask first, motherfucker, and back the fuck up if we say no. You know that fear you’re feeling, realizing that the sisters have had it with being your fucking doormats and holes in mattresses and objects for sadistic amusement and destruction? That fear we live with every day: in staff meetings and on the subway and on the street and in the break room and the elevator and the classroom. Examine the systems that you’ve created that gave birth to this, and realize that because you haven’t destroyed the shit, we’re doing it for you. We have fucking had it.

Sisters&Brothers&Folks: Let us promise ourselves, and maybe one another, that after the anger has burned off, and the fear has subsided enough that we can take few deep breaths, that we will build something better: systems of education, of shared work, of government and community leadership, systems that are rooted in transparency, equity, compassion and accountability. We need it. Our kids need it, and our kids’ kids. It is time for positive, systemic change, change that happens in community. The world is groaning underneath the pressure of our viral, selfish systems. I refuse to believe that we are so far gone that we can’t return from the destructive, deplorable usury that defines how we treat each other. I have to: radical hope is our best weapon.

 

 

*polygyny is the practice of having more than one wife. Polygamy is gender neutral.

**this isn’t true. I'm telling a true story because it feels relevant. But don't get distracted about who this guy is. Knowing who he is really isn't worth your time, and it isn't my point.

Open Letter to my (White) Yoga Teacher

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Dear Teacher,*

I come to you with a thought that I've had trouble expressing. For years I think I've been trying to articulate this, and because it's been hard for me to get out--kind of a complicated idea, where tantra meets maya meets identity politics--I think it's been hard for you to hear. But I think I've finally got it, and I hope you'll give it some attention. 

We've recently talked about the parts of ourselves that drive the boat, in this case the fear in us that motivates our actions, our appetites, our attachments and aversions, and that we live in a world where most of us aren’t consistently fearing for our lives. The second time you said this, I spoke up that I do, in fact, consistently fear for my life, though more consistently in Chicago than in other places, because “I know more what Chicago is.” Do you remember this? The conversation kind of turned there, and you were able to hold the idea that certain neighborhoods in Chicago might encourage me to fear for my life. I feel like I need to clarify my point. I don’t fear for my life because I may live or work in rough neighborhoods in Chicago: this isn’t an issue of the rough side of the tracks versus “a safer part of town.” In fact, I fear for my life because I’m a black woman in America, and I have learned that my city (indeed my country, and yours too), doesn’t value my life as much as others, as much as yours. I have learned that both law enforcement and civilians are free to beat, hurt, rape and even murder me, because I am black, and they can do so without any concern that their own freedom will be altered. Black people, unarmed citizens who are just living, who are no threat to anyone, are routinely killed by police and citizens alike: it happens in New York, in Missouri, in Chicago, in LA, in Texas, in Minnesota, and it happens in San Francisco. When I walk down the street, regardless of what neighborhood, I walk with Eric Garner, with Michael Brown, with Sandra Bland and LaQuan MacDonald and Reykia Boyd. My life is so disposable that I can be killed and my killer could never face justice. Being black in America is hazardous to your health.

This is not just a perception. Black Americans are less likely to receive quality health care; they are more likely to have health care providers not take them seriously, to have docs believe they are overexaggerating their pain, which means they’re less likely to receive pain medication. They are more likely to struggle with illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension; and mortality rates of infants and mothers in childbirth, and breast cancer are all higher in black communities than any other in the country. Add to this various stigma, the profoundly dangerous struggles with white supremacy, the regular stress of being a person, and the uncertainty of folks around you who may perceive you as a threat and end your life, and you can begin to see what a literal, physical struggle it is to be black in America, how easy it is to fear for your own life.

In the yoga community, I struggle with the idea of neutrality, I struggle with the idea of surrender of my attachment to my own identity—which feels like surrender of my body—because on some level the machine of white supremacy is asking of me the same thing. White supremacy is asking me to agree with it and its agents, complicit or explicit, that my life is expendable. In fact, if I dare to tell white supremacy and its agents that my life is worth as much as others, that my black life matters, then I risk the wrath and violence of white supremacy: if I don’t give up my life, the machine of white supremacy will come and take it from me.

All of my yoga teachers** are white. (I don’t know if this is a statement about the yoga culture in America, about what gatekeepers exist between black folks and yoga—as a physical, mental and spiritual practice—that either accidentally or on purpose, hold us back and away from the yoga community, or if it’s just a statement that I haven’t worked hard enough to people my yoga community with more folks who look like me. I tend to believe it’s the former, not the latter.) This isn’t a surprise, and while it isn’t easy for me, I’ve often been the only black person, if not one of few black people, in most of the spaces I’m in, and it’s been that way a long, long time. I’m accustomed to it, although I struggle with it. I struggle because I’m not sure what’s happening in the minds of my white teachers. I don’t know how many of them, of you, are conscious of the subtle but powerful lens that your own whiteness plays when you ask yogis of color like me to step into a space of identifying less with my flesh, which feels so vital to my existence. Can you hold, and see, that sometimes even the ask is an act of violence? It is an easy ask for those of us in the majority culture to ask those of us in the minority to shed our identity: it sounds like assimilation, which is a tool of colonialism, of appropriation. It may be well-intentioned and pointed toward evolution, but when the culture at every turn seeks to annihilate your existence, it still feels like a threat. I hope that my teachers can begin to examine how that lens of whiteness is at work in their teaching, not just because for them to do so might make me feel safer in their classroom, but for all the other students of color who step into their classrooms and training spaces, and need to be seen and be whole, and to acknowledge that sometimes the request to shed their identity compromises that.

...if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
— James Baldwin

It is true that to continue to bring my blackness up to folks, to my teachers and colleagues, is exhausting. It’s exhausting because when I do, it feels like I’m the only person who seems to see the weight of what identity politics in America holds; in majority-white yoga spaces I feel a kind of pitying gaze, as though I am the only person bound by this shadow, this imaginary idea of race, and that the rest of the yogis are already free of it. This is white privilege at work. This is one of the ways in which white supremacy is continuing to root itself in our hearts and our communities. I think this week I heard you use language about reminding ourselves that sometimes we might see or know what others don’t yet see or know, and that this fact should not elicit our pity, but our patience, and our humility, because once upon a time we didn’t know (and likely in a short time we won’t know; we are always learning). I would hear this language and hear the language of James Baldwin bouncing around inside my skull: “Please try to be clear…about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent suggestion that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it they cannot be released from it.”

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
— Albert Camus

What does it mean to do the work of both moving deeper into a space that allows yogis of color like me to feel free, safe, even emboldened to touch and rejoice in our identity, while at the same time living no greater than or less than, while acknowledging that race, gender, socioeconomic status are all social construct, in fact as much as whiteness is, all are a kind of bondage of the manifest world? I believe my work (and it may be the work of my brothers and sisters in ancestry) is to delight in, and live fully, loudly, and unapologetically my blackness: to be black without being small, without respectability or assimilation oppressing me. On some level this means reminding people of the institutionalized and enduring inequity which has defined our existence as Americans since before our country was born. Even so, I also must keep practicing so that I can move deeper into dwelling in the space where there is no “I”, where I can dwell in the Unmanifest, entirely free.

As yogis, our community has work to do. While I believe to my core in the power of ritual, I don’t think ritual is enough. I don’t believe asana, or pranayama, or mantra on its own will do all of the work that we need to do to free us from the insidious poison of white supremacy. Our majority-white community needs to engage in listening—by which I mean listening to under- or unrepresented voices in our community; it takes humility and a willingness to be criticized, an ability to hold the anger of those of us who have felt and have been wronged; it takes a willingness to seek the teachings, and from teachers we may not be familiar with: James Baldwin, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Michelle Alexander, Ava DuVernay, Melissa Harris-Perry, Ta-Hehisi Coates, and others who have humbling and necessary lessons for us of the consequences of whiteness in America, and in our world. Stay in our practice, we must. And sometimes, we must also lay down the familiar practices of yoga and pick up the challenges that exist in our sangha.

I recognize my fear, my struggle, as a granthi, given how you defined it. It absolutely feels tied to my ability to plant my feet on the earth, take up space, and breathe air, as well as tied to my personal identity and what power I may have or feel robbed of by our world. I hope that this letter loosens that knot, if only a little: that I can embody my black woman-ness with strength and joy, and in so doing, continue to be remember that my body to which I identify so fiercely is both divine and as ordinary and temporary as dust. I also hope that my white colleagues and teachers can understand that social constructs like race and gender that are so powerful don’t just fade away at the threshold of the yoga studio, and we must learn to work skillfully with these constructs and not ignore them, in order to be free of them.

I love you. I respect you. Because both are true, I feel I can be honest with you, and because if I avoid honesty with you I harm us both. I have my work, and you have yours; I hope our praxis will allow us to connect in a way that heals generations, centuries, even millennia of injury.

Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.

 

 

 

*this teacher is a kind of amalgam of yoga teachers I've had and still have. Not a message to any particular person, but a kind of message to all particular persons. If you think you need to hear it, you do.

**using this term in the accepted sense, in the sense of someone I practice with, I study with, I learn from, whom I've given permission to speak into my life both as a colleague and a mentor. There are all kinds of folks who've taught me about yoga, and we've never done any physical practice together.

Watch What Happens

My skin is brown, my eyes are clear I hear your voice, I see your fear I bear witness to your injustice What do they call me? They call me Sister

My skin is brown, my eyes are clear

I hear your voice, I see your fear

I bear witness to your injustice

What do they call me? They call me Sister

Friday, August 18, 2017

9:35 AM

I am walking home from the yoga studio. South Wabash Avenue is quiet: food delivery trucks dropping off for the weekend rush, late commuters, nannies walking babies, dog walkers and me. I don’t notice the traffic on the street: I’m thinking about the rest of my day. I am deep in thought when I hear the buzzing, angry horn of a police cruiser. I plug my ears, unsure how long the sound will last. One of those new Dodge Chargers, big, black, masculine, beautiful, pulls over and the SUV cruiser behind it with the blue lights flashing.

This could go one of several ways.

I am stunned when the door of the Charger flies open wide and the driver steps out. He is like his car: big, black, masculine, and beautiful. Maybe 6’2”, 190 pounds, in dark pants, a blue t-shirt and sandals. He has short hair and a face that would be handsome if he were smiling, if instead his face weren’t contorted with something—agony, rage, regret. He is holding in his hand a short cup of red fluid, he’s calling it juice.

It’s going to go that way.

I wonder, is he famous? An athlete I should recognize? Is that why he’s gotten out of the car? Maybe he wants to show Johnny Law, hey, you just pulled over a famous guy, and even though I’m black and male and we all know what that means when it comes to black men and the police, maybe it doesn't have to go down that way. Can we just let this go, bygones be bygones. Can I sign a ball for you or something for your grand-kid and we can call it a day?

The officer is white (duh), older, male, in a CPD uni. He and the driver are speaking over one another, the officer trying to pull him over to the hood of the cruiser, the driver demanding to know why he’s been pulled over, insisting he’s done nothing wrong.

The officer is barking into his walkie talkie on the shoulder of his uniform in a voice high and tight with fear, “Traffic stop gone bad, I need a car!” and he’s shouting out addresses on the block we’re standing on, between 14th and 16th street, 1520 South Wabash, 1516 South Wabash. I keep walking, but I’m watching openly. A white man walking a small dog has his headphones in, and he’s watching too. Once I’m at a distance that makes me feel safe, I stop walking and continue to watch.

I’m unsure if I should be watching. I want to see what this cop is going to do to this brother. There is a part of me that wants to give this man his privacy, too, though. No first responder I have ever dealt with—paramedic, fire department, and especially police—has been human when doing their job. They’ve been “professional”, whatever that means, they’ve followed protocol; but their own humanity, and the humanity of folks they’re dealing with especially, goes right out the window. If I were being harassed on the street, would I want people gawking at me? Or would I want as few witnesses as possible.

I turn to go. The ink on my arm lights up, I feel it burning my skin, and in an answer to my question, the driver calls my name. “Sister!” he shouts, “Sister!” I turn and we lock eyes. “Watch him!” he says to me. And I do. This is what I said I would do, and he’s asked me to, so I watch the man shout at the officer and the officer shout at the man. I am not close enough to see if the officer is going to plant anything on him or in his car, and I do see him finger a holstered weapon on his belt, but nothing comes off of it.

Now the white man walking the dog is involved. “Sir, I think you should obey the officer,” he says. The driver protests, he doesn’t see any reason why he should be touched, he hasn’t done anything wrong.

(I roll my eyes inwardly. Of course, another white guy has to get involved, I think. History is full of examples of success for black folks listening to the police. Excuse me sir, you dropped your privilege.)

“Sir,” he repeats in a low, measured tone, “I’m a lawyer, and you have a legal right to defend yourself in court. But if you resist or disobey the officer you’re going to make it harder.”

No one is listening to each other. The driver can’t hear the white man with the dog because the cop is shouting at him. “Hey, I need a lawyer, you a lawyer? I need a lawyer,” the driver repeats to the white man with the dog.

“Stop trying to touch me, man, I’m trying to drink my juice!” the driver is shouting. “I just got outta jail, I ain’t do nothing wrong! He can’t even tell me what I did!”

He can probably say something, but whether or not what he says is true, well, it doesn’t really matter at this point, does it.

I watch as CPD descend on the man, as if they have been lurking in the shadows waiting for this moment. Two cops, four, ten, thirteen, sixteen.

I am not exaggerating.

Another cruiser pulls up, and another; a police wagon. (a fucking police wagon. For one guy.) Plain-clothes cops, more unis: like ants on sugar, like roaches, like mice. Quietly, swiftly, they grab this man. The cuffs are out now. They force him to bend at the waist where he puts down whatever he was drinking.

There is an ancestral, generations-old, centuries-old, crushing and painful familiarity about what I am witnessing. Some part of me knows the spectacle of white men in a knot wrestling with one black man who just wants to do his life. I’m not sure I can feel my body. I’m not sure I can breathe. My arms are reflexively crossed over my belly. I am scared and angry.

By the time the driver is in handcuffs and being led toward some police vehicle, thirteen of them have actively participated in subduing him, with a cadre of other cops pointing and barking and attempting to look official. Thirteen police officers. To subdue one black man with the nerve to try to be free.

No one has been shot. No one has been tased. This is not how this should go, but at least, today, he is still alive. For now. He just got out of jail, he says. And now he’s likely going back.

Now there are statements, clean up, a tow truck for the Charger in the street, and there will be paperwork, and now I turn to go. I don’t want to talk to cops. I’m not going to help an effort to rob another black man of his freedom.

At the end of the block, a blond-haired white woman with a sweet voice tries to stop me. “I’m sorry to bother you,” she says, “but do you know what happened?”

I shake my head at her. I know if I open my mouth, I will scream at her; and she didn’t do anything but miss the action, and she just wants someone to tell her a story.

It won’t be me.

When I sit down to write this, I am still shaking.

It’s not my story. I am not the story here. The story is how hard it is to be free when everywhere you go the system is designed to rob you of your freedom. You can’t even drive down the street and enjoy a drink without being threatened and oppressed and incarcerated.

Well, some of us can.

There are lots of ways this could have gone. It could have gone a lot worse, but it could have gone a lot better.

I bet the officer would say he followed the rules.

I don’t know the rules. But I can tell you this:

They. Don’t. Work.

 

The Breaking of the Shell

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On weekends I prepare for a work day. I rise early, I try to sit quietly, when there’s enough time, I eat a breakfast—usually liquid, so I don’t run the risk of it backing up on me during inversions or uddiyana kriya—that will sustain me through the morning, and I get dressed and walk the half-mile from my home to the yoga studio where I practice and teach. I plan what sequence I’ll be providing, I scribble a couple of fast notes, and then I practice. I almost always take class. It’s hard sometimes for folks, even my partner, to conceive that a yoga class is a part of my work day, but on this day it is. This is one of few days where my schedule permits me to study with my teacher before I have to teach, and I can think of few things better as a means of preparation for teaching. Joining his class allows me to practice without having to think so hard, to hold my own space: I get to surrender myself to his sequence and his energy, and contribute to, and ride, the wave of prana that I’m creating with others in the room. I get a chance to get my mind right, and to relax the clinching or desire of being able to do a pose well enough. When something pressing comes up, like a day-job meeting or a family obligation, I’ll sacrifice that early class, but I hate doing so. Not practicing before I teach changes the class I’m able to provide on that day.

One Saturday morning, I arrived early. The studio is often a popular place on weekends, buzzing with laughter and gossip from folks who have the time to come out and socialize before and after their practice. I found a friend in a quiet corner, and sat down beside him. As we started talking, I began to take my jacket off, and noticed, quite out of the blue, that my neck was tingling, just this side of an ache. It was as if I’d somehow gotten whiplash in the ten seconds it had taken me to unzip my burgundy hoodie: in 360 degrees, my neck was buzzing. It wasn’t quite pain, but it wasn’t pleasant, as if it was trying to decide if it wanted to hurt.

As surprising as it was, I kept chatting with my friend for a while, and then prepared for class. As we began, the tingling began to change, to deepen and sharpen. My muscles began to tighten, and during class my range of motion became smaller and smaller.

During the practice, my teacher coached us as we moved from chaturanga dandāsana to urdva mukha śvanāsana, “Press the tops of the feet down, open the heart, let the head drop back so you’re upward facing…” I tried it, and my body, clear as a bell, responded, nah girl, we ain’t doin’ that shit. My neck gripped, my traps clenched, and I couldn't move. The voice of my body was so clear, I looked around the room,  sure someone else had heard it. But the rest of the room continued onward, tucking toes under, lifting hips up, and lengthening spines into adhō mukha śvanāsana.

I suppose I should count myself lucky that my body sometimes communicates so clearly. But on this day it just felt obstinate. The next time we did a sun salutation, I attempted to jump back, and as safely and as lightly as I landed, I felt a tremor run up my spine and my neck spasmed. Okay, no more jumping today, I said to myself with a frown. I tried to shake my head gently and release tension, but even that was painful. By the end of class, the pain was real. I could barely turn my neck to look over one shoulder, lift my eyes to the ceiling, or let my chin drop toward my chest. Everything had seized up. I was angry. I really wanted a strong practice, wanted to enjoy the wide range of movements I move my body through, even when in my teacher’s class, I often find myself banging into my own limitations. I really wanted to feel like I was doing something! But the pain in my body restricted that range of motion to quite a narrow path.  When my teacher put us in śavasana, I stepped out of the room and took a quick dose of Arnica Montana. I returned to the classroom and rolled up a blanket behind my neck, hoping that the extra height would give my neck a place to loosen and relax a little gripping. No dice. I taught the next class class that way, unable to swivel my head in any direction, feeling tense, tight, achy, and struggling to breathe deeply.

This is an old pain, a pain I’m familiar with, that I’ve struggled with on and off for close to 20 years. I’m not sure when it began. I wish I could chalk it up to something, like a car accident, or a traumatic injury, but nothing I’ve experienced is so profound that it would make sense. I have noticed that when I feel overheated, or when find myself in situations of conflict, when I feel my buttons of abandonment or overwhelm being pressed, that it tends to flare up. I used to wish for healing, to be free forever of this pain. It makes it difficult for me to practice headstand and feel safe. I’m not so worried about whether or not I can balance; instead I’m worried about taking too much weight on my head and doing myself significant, permanent damage. My relationship to this pain is enduring, for better or for worse.

I’d love to be able to tell you that the practice of yoga teaches you to work with your body as an ally, a partner in your life and how you move through the world, and not as a resource to be mined, or an object of oppression, or an obstacle to manipulate into submission, to overcome. I’d love to tell you that, but I'm not sure it's true. When I look closely around the classrooms I practice in, I see some bodies that are longing, that are striving, working as hard as possible. Some of us come to yoga seeking healing from pain, looking to build strength and grow our capacity. For some of us, the physical practice of yoga is another place where we push push push, go go go, demand 110%. There is no ease in this kind of practice, there is only effort.

Pain has been a big part of my practice. I don’t have any complex diagnoses, I don’t have an autoimmune disorder. But I also have been taught to demand excellence from my body. I have learned that with enough effort, stringency, demand, and the sheer, brutal power of my will, I can make my body what I want it to be. This doesn’t feel like an accurate context for knowing my body. My body doesn’t like it when I demand from it; it tends to rebel. I’ve tried to demand postures from my body, like Urdvha Dhanurāsana or Pincha Mayurāsana, I wind up with injury that causes me to back off and rest. But this demand from the body is what our world teaches us: our body is under our control, and is an object to be controlled, rather than a partner in our existence. As a woman, my body is not a temple, nor a manifestation of the divine that I can explore and enjoy for all the things it can do, all the ways it can change, not a gift for me to enjoy and share as I deem right. It is a tool for attracting attention--usually from men, whether or not I’m attracted to them, or even heterosexual—and it’s a tool I have limited ownership over; it's an incubator for breeding the next generation, and if I can't breed, then what use am I? How I adorn my body dictates how others treat me, and if they treat me like shit it must be because I did something that indicated that I wanted to be treated like shit, that I thought I deserved to be treated like shit. This can include walking, smiling, not smiling, drinking in public, drinking in private, laughing, being alone, being with friends, wearing short skirts, long skirts, being covered from head to toe, being single, being married, being young or old, being poor, being wealthy, being friendly, being nice, being mean, being quiet, basically just being.

Marginalized bodies, bodies living with or recovering from trauma, bodies dealing with disease, sometimes these aren't the safest, easiest bodies to live in. But when we are able to bring our bodies to the mat, without judgment, with observation, with one eye on discipline and one eye on compassion, we can learn and grow to love ourselves more deeply and completely, and to care for ourselves in a way that serves us continuously.

I want to move my body with delight and safety and ease through the world, but sometimes it's hard to; sometimes the threat to my ease and safety feels outside my body, and sometimes it feels inside. Wrestling my mind away from judgment and self-loathing can be just as challenging as being brave enough to feel free to walk down the street. (Because, this is not an exaggeration, some days, it really does feel threatening as a woman of color, to walk down the street. I resent it, and I demand the right to be free in my country, in my city, in my neighborhood; and I also feel, at times, at risk.) Resisting the external demand I feel on my body, and working with the pain that I feel, sometimes my practice changes shape. I can't always count on being able to unroll my mat and throw down: sometimes I come to practice hurting, and I don't want to push through the pain. I want to work with it, because it may be temporary, but so is ease. 

If your practice is anything like mine, sometimes you have trouble staying present in it. Sometimes you get distracted thinking about what else you have to do today, or (my personal fave) what you're going to eat when this is over, or maybe how that last pose went for you, or what pose is coming next. Pain brings you immediately to the present moment. it won't let you move away, it won't let the balloon of your mind drift away from the steady grasp of your hands into the sky or down the road. It holds you present, it Keeps You Here. 

I tell students not to practice to the point of pain, not to push through pain, and I mean it. When something hurts me, I don't want to do it, and I believe that if we blind ourselves to the messages of our body (I'm hungry, I have to pee, Ouch!), that we position ourselves for greater and more lasting discomfort, dysfunction, and potentially, disease. Practicing with pain is something different. In a monograph of guidelines and practices written by the Ashtanga Vinyasa Ann Arbor community, led in some part by Angela Jamison, she writes, "It's a practice, not a performance. Modify for pain or fatigue if they actually arise. You might be surprised: they may have just been in your head."  

(Just as a sidenote, I need to take a moment here and totally fangirl over Angela Jamison. Though I'm familiar with Primary Series (and respect it deeply) I'm not an Ashtangi, but if I were and if she'd have me, I'd make an annual pilgrimage to Ann Arbor to practice with her. I have learned so much from her about practice, about paying close attention and what we do and why, and I LOVE the way she writes about the intersections of yoga, economy and society. Her work consistently asks me to step up my game. Deep, deep bow.)

She continues, "....For what it is worth to you, here is my personal practice. When I have been injured or ill, I still roll out the mat. I sit, lie or gently move, focus on the breathing, remain calm, and feel the energy in my body. This (1) maintains the practice habit. It also (2) focuses attention on perceiving energetic and physical experience, teasing this apart for emotional reactions, and thus significantly alleviating my suffering. (Shinzen Young says Suffering = Pain x Resistance.) This practice of coming to the mat even when there is great difficulty is (3) often fascinating, and sets a new baseline for future gratitude for my body. I sense that (4) doing this helps me recuperate faster. Studying pain with curiosity and care, not pushing to try to make it disappear: this is what I mean when I saw that it is OK to practice during injury or illness."

This is the energy I try to bring to my practice when I'm hurting, and though it complicates my life, I'm grateful for pain because it has lessons to teach me: about how to rest, how to practice, and how to listen closely. When I'm not hurting, I take ease in my body for granted and pay less attention and push more. 

(I've been talking pretty exclusively about physical pain in this context, and it's important to acknowledge that emotional, mental, and psychic/spiritual pain is as real--and as prevalent--as achy knees and shoulders. They're often connected to one another. I highlight physical pain in this post because it's what's been taking my attention most clearly. I think perhaps the same kind of discipline, compassion and curiosity could yield meaningful results when dealing with pain located in the mind, heart, or soul. It often has for me. )

All this to say that the body is not a traitor, even when it behaves in ways we wish it wouldn't. Your illness or injury is a meaningful teacher just like mine is for me. So don't be mad that your body won't do what you wish it would. Marvel at what it will do. Be grateful for what it has to say, and listen closely. Work together. Work cooperatively. Be patient. Release attachment to results and for gawd's sakes who cares if you can do dwi pada sirsasana. Can you spend a week with your family without wanting to kill them your yourself; can you acknowledge your privilege and use it for someone else's good; can you say you're sorry; can you forgive? When these practices come with more ease and less effort, we'll know the yoga is doing something.

 

And a woman spoke, saying, "Tell us of Pain.

And he said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. 
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. 
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; 
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. 
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief. 
Much of your pain is self-chosen. 
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. 
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity: 
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, 
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears. 

Kahlil Gibran, "On Pain"

Happy Birthday

I never take good pictures of myself. Call it, clavicle with malas and earring.  

I never take good pictures of myself. Call it, clavicle with malas and earring.  

Today I am thirty-seven years old.  

This is not a post about aging, about "older and wiser", or coming to grips with a changing body, or what it means to finally begin to feel how time speeds up--and cycles--the older we get.  

This is a post about safety.  

The first, clearest memory I have of feeling unsafe I was maybe eight. My parents and I had just moved into the house I grew up in, an unremarkable but comfortable split level home in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati. It was a product of the post WW2, white-flight baby boom, it had the avocado-split pea soup-green accents and appliances of the '70s, and even a few stains from past pets lingering in the gray/beige shag carpet. We were the only black family on the street. We'd been in the house maybe a week, when someone--we never knew who, but I suspected the next door neighbors--egged our house. They broke my bedroom window. I don't remember if my father called the police, but I remember he was furious. I slept in that bedroom with a broken window, watching egg yolk drip and congeal on the outside glass. The broken pane was like a starburst in the center. We had it fixed right before I moved out, ten years later.

I remember feeling unsafe in the third grade, when the boy sitting next to me reached out and grabbed me by the pussy and laughed in my face. I have long since forgotten his name, but I have not forgotten his face.  

I remember feeling unsafe when my mother would rage at me like her heart was breaking and it was my fault, and then an hour later would be sweet to me like nothing had happened.  

I remember feeling unsafe when I watched Anita Hill on tv, and I learned (for the first time) that the people you're supposed to be able to turn to when your boss is unkind, inappropriate, when they make you feel ashamed and disgusted and violated, those people who are supposed to help will make you prove over and over that you were actually hurt, that you didn't just imagine it, and then, they won't support you or give you justice anyway.  

I remember feeling unsafe when I was 23, and while sitting quietly and talking with a friend in his parked car, we were accosted by Sarasota police. When the officer asked for i.d. and I reached toward my bag for my wallet, he shouted at me. I didn't know if he wanted me to give him the i.d. he was asking for or keep my hands where he could see them.  

I remember feeling unsafe when I realized how lucky I am that he didn't shoot me in the face then and there.  

I remember feeling unsafe Tuesday morning, when I looked in the rear view mirror on my way to work and saw a Chicago p.d. cruiser, and I tried to imagine how to talk to my colleagues about why I wasn't at the meeting, or wasn't able to teach class because I'd been arrested for driving while black.  

I remember feeling unsafe on Sunday afternoon, when I went for a run with my Mister, and our neighborhood was crawling with white people in "the uniform": blue jeans or khakis and black t-shirts, some of which said Metallica on them. Large groups of white people always make me nervous: in the blink of an eye they turn from citizens too interested in their own screens into irrational, frothy, bloodthirsty mobs. My Mister pointed out this group was particularly menacing because they were all dressed like the same way. Try as I might, I could not cast these people in the light of my friend Andrew Reilly, the Metallica fan: the metal head with a great brain, a sensitive heart, and a deep, abiding curiosity about others around him and their humanity. Instead, they only occupied the space of anonymous white person Metallica fan: they came to get wasted, rock out, raise hell, and I was just a black body in the way. Irritating. Insignificant. Disposable.

I remember feeling unsafe when, half a mile later, I saw Chicago p.d. standing on the lawn in front of the Field Museum. One of the officers was holding an AK-47 as casually as you'd hold a cup of coffee. I stopped running. I stopped breathing. I had a vision of a kerfuffle that began when I ran into a Metallica fan too busy making a joke to his bros to watch where he was going, of being picked off by the officer, a bullet slicing hotly through my spine, of my Mister with my blood on his hands, screaming, she wasn't armed, we were out for a run, she didn't do anything, what did you do, what did you do. 

 I want to believe in safety, I really do. I work hard to create a context of safety for my students and my clients, to be a beacon and a haven of safety for anyone I interact with in the course of my work. I want to create a context that communicates, you can be here and no one will ask you to be different. You might be challenged, and growth is seldom comfortable, but you have sovereignty over your own body, and together we will work with you body/mind to manifest healing, wellness, connection. 

But it's hard to believe safety is possible in our world. When the fact of my existence is a hazard to my health, and when citizens and officers of law can execute me with impunity, all I can remember is how it feels to feel unsafe. When I consider what is happening to black women, to Muslim women, what we are teaching our children about race in America, it can feel hard to leave the house, much less make myself vulnerable to others.  

The Gita would tell me to keep doing my work, of teaching and healing, and release my attachment to the results. If my life is taken from me in pursuit of my work, so much the karmic blessing. The religious tradition I was raised in would tell me any number of things: Jesus spent his time with the least of these and he would not survive in our current world, he's too radical; even to be gunned down or beaten to death will put you in the presence of the Lord, and isn't that what we all want; we're all white in Heaven. The yoga zeitgeist would tell me that politics have no place in my practice, and if I keep talking all this mess about justice and deconstruction of white supremacy side by side with mulabhanda and nadi shodana, I will alienate, and ultimately lose, students. 

What does the divine spark inside tell me? If I listen closely, I can hear it tell me that though I should be grateful that I've survived to the age of thirty-seven as a black woman in America, that is no accident; that this work is my work for a reason; that my black joy and black health are beautiful and powerful, and perhaps even more threatening to those who are afraid of me than my hair, my voice, or any imagined weapon in my waistband or purse will ever be. Finally, it tells me that my blackness is not an identity or a label to shed or to transcend; instead my blackness is a manifestation of the divine, and those who seek to seek to shrink or dissolve it do not seek my liberation, they seek only their own deeper bondage. They are the ones who lack safety. 

Happy birthday.