A surprising thing happened to me the other day. I was in a shoe store trying on boots and wanted to make sure that they fit okay. You know about the weird dance you do when you're trying out shoes, right? You walk around trying to imitate the way you really walk, to feel if the shoes rub or pinch anywere; you tap your feet to make sure the soles feel okay; you jump up and down to see how flexible they are. So I was doing this dance around the store and I did a kind of one-legged short lunge to see how stiff they were. Imagine standing on both feet, and stepping your right foot back, bending the right knee and lifting the right heel, like you're going to bend down on one knee, and then pressing into your right foot to stand up again.
I did this with both feet, down and UP, down and UP, when a woman beside me exclaimed, "Wow! How did you do that?"
I laughed and explained that I was just trying out the shoes.
"Do you know, if I tried that, they'd have to get a crane in here to lift me back up, and they'd have to counterwait it just to get me off the floor."
"I'm sure that's not true," I said.
"That was incredible, where do you dance?" she asked.
I answered without thinking, "I'm not a dancer, I'm a yoga teacher... I do a lot of yoga."
"Oh, well that explains it," she said, and continued on her pursuit of her own shoes.
So the encounter itself wasn't that remarkable. A short, low lunge is a move that happens with some frequency, and chatting with strangers is something I do a lot. But I definitely had a feeling when I told her, "I'm a yoga teacher." A voice inside me said, really? That's how you're describing your work? Which is why right after I said it, I verbally took it back by saying, I do a lot of yoga. She didn't know I was walking it back, but I knew.
Yoga Teacher isn't a label I wear freely, it's not how I introduce myself to people. When they ask, "what to you do?" I say things like, "I write for a couple of online magazines, I work with a feminist health collective called Chicago Women's Health Center, I make stories." Sometimes I say that I teach yoga.
Notice the verbs here: write, work, make, teach. Defining myself with verbs is totally okay with me: I love a wonderful man; I cook gluten-free, vegan cuisine; I watch too much television, and only some of it is good; I listen to amazing humans share stories that foster connection and growth; I help young people discover their voices and harness their creative potential; I create space for the willing and the interested to connect to their bodies and their breath. I like verbs; they demonstrate action. And here I'm going to show my etymological ignorance, but they don't have the same kind of ownership that the noun-labels have: I write stories sounds active and engaging; I'm a writer can be engaging, but it can also be pretentious, and I'd love to avoid that.
When I was training to teach yoga, it was really important to me not to label myself a yoga teacher. I don't have any problem with the label on G.P., and it's how I define many of the people I practice and work with. But wearing the label myself felt too tight and too heavy. I've been practicing and studying yoga for a while, but I feel right at the beginning of learning what it means to take the seat of the teacher in a yoga practice space. I might be a Yoga Teacher someday, but not today. On top of which, I've come to discover that I tend to view any classroom as a transgressive space, by which I mean that I might be at the top of a hierarchical pyramid, but my preferred learning shape is more of a circle, with no top or bottom. I can say that I teach yoga. Saying that I'm a yoga teacher is much harder to do.
Which is why when it fell out of my mouth so easily the other day, I was startled by it. It felt suddenly like I'd built a sandwich board onto myself and was walking through the world with the words YOGA TEACHER in dripping black paint on my chest and back. As if carrying my yoga mat wherever I'm working isn't ubiquitous and obnoxious enough.
I don't know what I look like from the outside when I'm teaching. Part of my evaluation was an on-camera (!) class I co-taught followed by a group critique from my teachers and cohort. Sounds gruelling, and sometimes it was, but the review and reflection was both honest and compassionate. Aside from that 20-minute video, I've no idea what my face looks like when I'm demoing or adjusting, if my smile is as genuine as it feels, if others can read the confusion I sometimes feel as I'm teaching.
What I mean is, I don't know if my physical appearance exudes teacher. I know I have a loud voice, and I'm comfortable enough giving directions, even when I confuse my left and right. I know I will get beside someone and show them what I mean if they aren't getting a move or adjustment. I've been in this body so long, I know a large portion of what it says. When I'm sick, or angry, you can feel it from feet away. When I want to be left alone, my quick pace and darkened brow say, back off, Jack. When I'm interested, I make eye contact. When I'm thinking quickly and also nervous, my hands are two birds drawing pictures in front of me.
On top of all this, my body says a lot as a black female body in America. Sometimes I can turn up parts of it, or turn down parts of it. In college, I wrote a thesis on black visibility that argued there were practices, clothing, language and other qualities that I and other African-American students could use that would be tantamount to "performing black." We could do things to remind people that we were black, or to help them forget. I absolutely know that what my black, female body says and what others think it says are two different things, and if I ever forget that, all I have to do is turn on the news, and I'm reminded.
Until that day in the shoe store, it didn't occur to me that my body might say, I use my body to earn a living, and I ask it to do things that not every body can do. It didn't occur to me at all that anyone else would look at my body and think anything about what it could do. I had no idea that my body might say yoga-teacher body.
There's a lot of scrutiny in the yoga community (is there? Or is there maybe not enough?) of the prototypical "yoga body" in our country and culture, and what it is and is not, according to the media. If you ask me, I'll tell you the yoga body is often thin, white-skinned, tattooed, and female. I feel it when my body fits into this paradigm, and when it doesn't, which often happens at the same time, given the nature of my body, and where I practice yoga and with whom. I feel it when my body frame and gender identity is a privilege for me that others don't have, and I feel it when my racial identity sets me apart from the group. I am a woman of color and I have a yoga body, right down to the ink, but I was stunned when some part of me labeled myself as such. I might not see myself reflected in the yoga zeitgeist, but I know I'm there, and I know it so thoroughly that some part of me is ready to connect my body to yoga teacher body.
It feels incredibly introspective (and not a little insecure, maybe?) to spend this much time considering what I look like from the outside, so I'm about ready to be done. But I think I will continue to hold the label yoga teacher back from my verbal C.V. for a while. I have some control of what I put on my body, and the energy it shares with the world, but what others project onto it has nothing to do with me. So I suppose I have a yoga body, and a yoga teacher body, and a couch potato body and a story maker body, because these are the things I do with my body.