Tools of the Practice

A close-up of a quilt in the CoV4 exhibition room.

Healing Justice-- a "framework that seeks to lift up resiliency and wellness practicess as a transformative response to generational violence and trauma in our communities."

You ever hear something like that come out of your yoga teacher at the gym or the studio?

Nah, me neither.

One of the places where I struggle with yoga is in its individuality. The rhetoric is often so personal and individual--at least it seems so from my eyes: what is my duty or responsibility; what are my established patterns that need reframing or uprooting; what karma (from this life or another) am I still dealing with.  I know the yamas can be externally focused, right? Don't steal from others, don't lie to others; but even then, there's an I/They duality hard at work. There's no We Space.

(I wonder how our current culture would be different if We was the only pronoun we had: we taught a class this morning at 6:15; we recently won (and also lost?) an election for Chicago mayor; we've been fired from our job after videotape surfaced proving we shot an unarmed black man. Some kind of clarity would need to evolve surely, to avoid confusion; but how would things feel different if We was really all we knew? There's some language about nonduality in the yoga zeitgeist, but what if it weren't just lipservice? What if it really dictated how we lived day-to-day?

(Also, I'm young. There's a lot I don't know. If you can point me toward a resource that will help untangle all this for me, I am all over it.)

One of the places where yoga fails me is in dealing with institutional and systemic trauma. I read a tweet recently at the Incite COV4 conference that quoted a keynote speaker: "I can't do enough yoga to combat patriarchy," they said. And my first instinct was to think, Oh, but Honey, doing yoga isn't about that, that isn't the point. All you can do is Do You.

But f*ck that. When the patriarchy wants to destroy you, when it wants to break you and grind you into dust, "Just Do You" is not enough, and it's a gross disservice to those who come after you, and don't have to be destroyed by the institution, if only you can rise up and dismantle it.

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.
— Audre Lorde

I have never resurrected anyone with the power of my asana, and I have tried. And the people who need to be on the mat as much of the rest of us do, well they ain't there: they're at City Hall, behind the bench, in The Capitol, but not on the mat. So what do we do, we who do not make law but are subject to it? How do we care for ourselves in a space where we fight the system? Maybe it's not even worth it.

Why, then, did I offer my time and energy as a yoga teacher at the Incite Color of Violence Conference in Chicago? If I really believe that my asana practice will not subvert the patriarchy, why engage it in such a radical space? Why not be content to work on the length of my hamstrings and the openness of my hips and be done with it?

I guess because some part of me believes that it ain't that black and white. I recently sat beside this guy on the Red Line who was all manspread out (for more about what this means read this and this). He was a thin guy with a wide, wide kneespan. I couldn't see his face, but the energy he put out said that he couldn't be bothered to move his coat from the empty seat beside him to the other empty seat beside him where his bag was. When I asked him to move his coat, he heaved a great sigh, and moved it on top of his bag.

I wedged myself in beside him. It was clear from his body language that he didn't want to share space. I tried to press my shoulders back against the seat, and ran into resistance. I held my mat bag between my knees so that it wouldn't fall onto the floor, which put hips-width distance between my knees. I sat this way for about 30 seconds, penned in by this guy's privilege. I felt his shoulder expand into mine with his in-breath. Oh-ho, I thought, you think you're the only one who can swell up with your breath? I took a deep inhale, expanding my ribcage, and sat there, breathing deeply.

In a couple of breaths the commuter got up and crossed the train car to another seat where he could pile his jacket and bag around him like a fort, and not be intruded on by a yogini with a powerful inhale.

When I wrote about this on social media, I used the hashtag #yogadefeatsmisogyny. It felt kind of miraculous--okay, maybe an exaggeration. But my inhale had stood up for me; the power and strength of my breath had been a force for dealing with a guy who wasn't willing to share with me. So maybe a handstand or Urdhva Dhanurasana won't eradicate hundreds of years of institutional racism, sexism or homophobia. Maybe it won't even feed me or someone I love who is hungry. Nope, there's no maybe about it, it won't feed me or anyone I know who is hungry. But my physical practice might equip me with the patience I need to sit beside the manspreader on the train who refuses to move and who continues to pin me in. It might teach me how to be compassionate and also determined to seek justice. It will certainly teach me how to provide a space for healing and restoration for others who are in the street, who are fighting and who need a space of peace and of rest. I don't know. The shape of yoga in our culture has a lot of problems, and it doesn't always feel like a tool I can use as a solution to problems. But #HealingJustice exists because we need it. As a student and a teacher, if I can show up with a tool for dismantling and rebuilding, then maybe this practice can exist, and can be useful, in a radical context.