feminism

Collective Healing

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This morning before my #40DaysofDevotion practice, I made what I often consider to be a "mistake before meditating" and took a walk through my FB feed.  I saw among other stuff, a short video made by a single mom who met her Prince Charming and thought she'd "found her happily ever after" only to discover that this bright, hardworking, charming man who she'd fallen in love with--a U.S. Navy veteran, a police officer, a devoted father of three--was sexually assaulting her 15-year-old daughter. (I didn't share the video, but I'd encourage you to seek it out, if you're curious. The mother's name is Catherine St. Germaine, and she's bravely public about her story.)

So I watched her video and I thought of my mother, thought of the women in my family. My mom's birthday was yesterday; she turned 61. She's the kind of woman who'd be appalled that I am sharing her real age online,  a woman with great skin, infectious laughter, a quick mind, and a boiling hot temper and a razor-sharp tongue. We aren't close, haven't been in years, and when I saw this video, I thought of her and the specter of rape and assault that seemed to haunt her my entire childhood. 

I am definitely one of the women who was taught how not to be raped. I carried a condom in my wallet for about ten years--all through college and for a long time after--fearing and hoping that if I was ever assaulted I could talk my attacker into wearing it, and avoid infection or unwanted pregnancy. Some part of my subconscious has language memorized about short skirts and tight jeans and black girls who are loud or drunk in public, and not making people think I was asking for it. 

So when I saw posts about April being #SexualAssaultAwarenessMonth, and watched this video, in which a predator was given a slap on the wrist for assaulting a woman, my heart reached back to my family. I am not a victim or a survivor of sexual assault. But I can look around my extended family gatherings and know that not every woman in the room was spared the same fate.

I had a cousin, Tamika. She was my mother's youngest sister's oldest child, and we called her Tammy--my mom coined this nickname, and I suspect it's because it sounded a little less black than Tamika (sounding a little less black has always been important to my mother) and I called her Tammy because my mom did. She was like a big sister to me: older; glamorous, even in the small, provincial town of Danville, Illinois; worldly--she could do dances that I didn't know, and seemed to know all the cool things that I just didn't have access to. I only saw her when we visited my grandmother, who had custody of Tammy and her baby brother, Alex. 

Tammy's mother died when she was young, 12 or 13, and Alex was still an infant. A fight with her crack-dealing boyfriend escalated, and when he pulled a knife on her, it scared her so badly she had a heart attack and collapsed right there in their dingy apartment kitchen. A heated custody battle put the care of Tammy and Alex in my grandmother's hands, and all I really knew about it was that it meant I could see Tammy more often. Now, decades later, I can look back at things and draw some conclusions. Tammy's early developed figure meant she'd certainly gotten attention from older men that wasn't age-appropriate. She knew more about men and sex than I did, and talked about it freely. According to my mother, she had a habit of attempting clumsy seduction at men twice her age, and if they rejected her, she would accuse them of assault. 

I remember my mother being furiously impatient with Tamika: why she couldn't understand that lying was wrong, that it just made things worse. At one point, someone floated the idea by her of having Tamika come and live with us, but my mom stopped it cold. There was no way she was going to invite a girl into her home who would proposition her husband and then accuse him of rape when he turned her down. 

What breaks my heart about this is that somewhere, in the days past of her life, there is some man who touched her, assaulted her, sunk himself into her flesh and her soul, without her consent. She was taught as a girl, that her body was not her own; she tried over and over to give herself away. All the signs are there that point to her having experienced sexual assault or rape. 

It never seemed to occur to my mother that someone, somewhere, really had assaulted Tamika. There was never any healing sought for her, never a discussion of how to help her hold the assault she almost certainly experienced, without having to reenact it over and over. No one ever tried to help her. My mother blamed her, judged her, but never seemed to want to help her heal, from wounds she couldn't see, but had to know were there. 

Tamika died last year, just shy of her fortieth birthday. I know that her short, painful life hurts my mother. I watched her at Tamika's funeral, sobbing, cloaked in a particular kind of guilt that it will take her too long to shed, and I recognized that Tamika is one of the projects that my mother had that she wasn't able to fix. 

I also know that my mother couldn't help her heal, but instead could only blame her or shame her, because my mother, too, hasn't yet healed from the wounds and scars of sexual assault that she bears. If, in fact, you are still blaming yourself for  your own injury, you can't hope to liberate someone else from their injury. 

So on my mat this morning, with every turn of the bead, I thought of this woman in Loveland, Colorado, and her young daughter, and all the work they have in front of them. And I thought of my cousin, who ran away from home at 16, who was homeless at various points in life, who'd been on and off I don't know how many drugs-- whose body bore more pain than anyone should have to; and I thought of my mother, so disappointed in her young niece for not being healed from her sexual assault, and decades later, so disappointed in herself for not being able to rescue her niece from that life-altering injury. I chanted for the healing of these women, present and absent, and for healing of all of us who are stumbling through the world carrying injury we are only partly conscious of. 

And I thought about consent.

Consent is something that is often taken for granted in yoga. If someone didn't want you to lay hands on them, they'd practice at home, right? Teachers have a thing, and students want to share that thing, want a piece of that thing, want to share that thing with a teacher that they respect, admire, onto whom they are projecting all their hopes and dreams (and fears and injuries). There are too many articles and posts for me to cite about sexual misconduct in the yoga world, but suffice to say, it's out there, and it's as insidious and deeply damaging as it is in families, in schools, in churches. Damaged people are everywhere: be wary of folks who use the word "overcome", but who don't talk about healing and struggle. But as people who are working in a place where the practical and the spiritual are as connected as sinew and bone, we have an obligation to consider what students are bringing to class: what anxiety around relationship, what frustration about job, what rawness about past injury that is so real they aren't sure that it isn't happening right now. 

So I try to use consent cards. My friend A.J. from Hippocamp Cards made them for me. I want everyone I share practice space with to be able to consent to touch, or not to consent, depending on the day, on the very moment.  The regulars I have in class really appreciate them, and even ask for them when I forget to put them out. Students do not consent to touch plenty, and I'm grateful when that happens. They set a boundary, and together we respect it. But I promise, as much as it's within me, our experience together will be in pursuit of your collective and individual healing. You're feeling hands-on today? Great! You're coming into the room charged, and want me to keep my hands off? Okay, thanks for letting me know. In a world where so much is a challenge, where so much feels taken from us without our consent, let's create a practice space where we agree to provide you with a practice space in pursuit of healing without triggering.

The Uniform

Warning: this is a post about fashion.

I love my jungle pants. They're my new favorite. I'm not really one to pull off patterned pants, so when I found them, I thought, I'm gonna do something fun and risky and fashion forward, and wear these pants.

I like not broadcasting YOGI in my look. I carry my mat around the city often enough, not because I want to but because  I need to, but when I can I try to wear street clothes to and from class. So most of the time I don't dress like I'm going to class. I'm not really the kind of person who thinks much about what I wear to practice yoga in, or to teach. I don't like to spend a ton of money on workout clothes.  I think about what I wear on the street, because I like to feel good about how I look in my clothes, but yoga clothes aren't that important to me. Will I be warm enough, will my body stay covered where I want it to, can you see my underwear through my pants; these are the questions I ask when I get dressed before I head out.

Warning: this isn't a post about fashion.

The other day when I leave my house north of 6 am to teach, I don't wonder if my yoga clothes are particularly attractive or provocative; I'm on my way to work, and I figure I'm in my uniform. I'm not thinking about wearing my jungle pants, a tank top and a cardigan sweater. My mind is on the sequence I prepared, on how I can warm up sufficiently before class starts starts, on how to be present for the students effectively.  Plus I'm commuting to class in my car. I'm not considering I'll be seen by  anyone. So when I get to work, I'm ready to teach. I feel awake, I feel present, I feel ready to great the class and offer them my best.  I get out of my car to move a rock the size of a brick out of my parking spot.

Then a car in the street stops beside me and a guy rolls down his window.

He's a guy I know. He's never taken my class before,  but he's around the space where I teach, and I've seen him through the class door of the studio, rubbernecking through the glass door. We are friendly with each other, on a first name basis, even. Every person I meet is a potential student, an opportunity for me to share an amazing experience with anyone who's interested. (Not to mention that friendliness and approachability are (yick) company policy.)

I try to ignore the fact that he's pulled up behind me in his car and rolled down his window with me, and how uncomfortable that makes me. We chat briefly. I assure him my absence is not due to permanent departure, only a temporary sojourn.  He promises that when he returns from a long weekend he'll consider taking my class.

As I am turning to back to my car to finish parking, I see him give me the elevator eyes. You know, the look one person gives another when they're inspecting how your clothes fit? When they're evaluating your body? The look wherein one person objectifies and dehumanizes the other? That look. He is taking in my torso, my hips and thighs, noticing how I fill out my green-and-black jungle pants. 

It happens fast, so fast I'm not completely sure it actually happens. Well, not all of me is sure. The part of me that recognizes how it feels to receive unwanted attention is sure. But it's a fast moment, and quiet, and I'm on my way to work, and by the time I know what I am feeling, I'm back in my car and he's at the end of the block.

I want to say, Really, guy? I'm on the job. You really wanna look at my ass? It's not even 8 am yet, gimme a break. But he's gone, and it's over. I pull my bags out of the car and head in to work.

All day, this interaction sat at the back of my mind, like a tag in something I was wearing that was vaguely uncomfortable, but I couldn't entirely identify what or why.

Later, I brought it up to my Mister. It was an awkward conversation and the whole time both of us were confused by what I was trying to say. I found myself apologizing. The yoga world can be blurry and undefined, I found myself saying, and my intentions as a teacher are always clear: I never want to lead anyone on or suggest anything inappropriate. But I can't control the way students treat me, what kind of baggage they're bringing into the room, what they might project on me, etc.

Okay, he said. But I'm not really sure what you're apologizing for. It sounds like you didn't do anything wrong.

The more I talked, the more I discovered that I didn't have anything to feel bad about. I'd worn my favorite pants to work and some guy, a guy I barely know, ogled me and made me feel sexualized and objectified. My jungle pants hand't been an invitation to the elevator eyes from this guy. Neither had my smile or my friendliness and openness. I'd talked to him like I talk to everyone, and he'd given me that creepy-ass look. But it had nothing to do with anything I'd done or anything I was wearing. 

It bummed me out that I'd worn my favorite pants and gotten this response. It made me angry that I'd internalized this oppression so profoundly that I felt guilt, shame even, just for doing my job, for doing life. 

There's a lot of focus in the yoga zeitgeist about the body. For many of us the focus is on the physical practice. We've all been heard plenty about the sexual misconduct in various communities and traditions. I think that has to do with the relationship between student and teacher, and blurry boundaries and taking advantage of people who put themselves in our trust. 

I think what I haven't considered, what I wasn't ready for, was the possibility of being objectified by others as a teacher. It's not street harassment, thought I've had my fair share of that. It was the idea that even in the context of teaching yoga I can't be free of being objectified by someone who could become a student. For all I know, some of the students I have objectify and sexualize me even now, and I have no idea. 

I've never thought to myself, is this too sexy an outfit to wear to class? Is this outfit going to distract students from their practices, and instead cause them to think about my body? I hate questions like this, and resent them to my core. It sounds like the same rhetoric from the conservative, religious right that tells women not to dress a certain way because it "causes men to stumble". I want to throw something when I hear that language. 

But it came out of me. Effortlessly, while I was talking with my Mister. This shame, this internalized oppression, this misogyny, came out of me without even trying.

I don't really know what else to say about this really. The thought occurs to me that I might be violating this person's privacy by telling this story. Am I wrong to shine a light on this, should I just process it quietly, internally? I don't want to shame him, I'm not after a public flogging or anything. 

I sat on this post for weeks. It makes me feel really vulnerable to share,  and as troubled as I am by this guy's behavior, I want to treat him as a human--though I'm not sure he's able to do the same. But I believe in the power of being vulnerable, of sharing, and perhaps at the risk of oversharing. So here it is.

I don't know what happens next. I know I keep wearing my jungle pants to teach in, and the next time I catch someone looking me up and down in them, they get a potent, considered earful from me, and a Namaste to finish it off. 

I also do the work of pulling this internalized oppression out by the root, so I can be rid of shame that isn't mine.