social justice

One Yogi's Guide to Self-Care

Taken mid-run on a gray morning when I was thinking about what possessed me to start running in the first place. There are moments when I hate it, but more moments when I am surprised by how strong, clear, and capable I feel.

Taken mid-run on a gray morning when I was thinking about what possessed me to start running in the first place. There are moments when I hate it, but more moments when I am surprised by how strong, clear, and capable I feel.

[white people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it they cannot be released from it... 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, The Fire Next Time

Initially I started this post with some confessions about my shitty self-care routine, but after some reflection, I realized that was just dumb and shallow. If you wanna know about my "guilty pleasures", you can ask, but we have some real talk to get on with. Things are different now, our work is different, and our self-care game needs to be as tight as our self-education, self-study, ally and advocacy game.

Shit just got real for some of us, right? Some of us have known the ugliness, the contagion, the destructive power of white supremacy and patriarchy for some time; others are only now just beginning to see how silent, insidious and dangerous it is. Our priorities are shifting. Many of us are feeling a sense of urgency. Hopefully, for all our sake's, rather than dissolving into myopic apathy, that urgency is being galvanized into a change that, one drop at a time, will rain down justice on all of us, washing away the fascism and corruption that is a real, credible, and determined threat to our lives and future generations. 

I am not exaggerating.

So some of us are doing the work, right? We're putting safety pins on our shirts and writing checks and hopefully we're calling our congresspeople and our president; we're organizing, we're marching, we're learning, we're thinking and digging and having deep conversations. But this work is fatiguing. For those of us new to advocacy and resistance, without resources, we can burn out fast. And don't let me front, I'm as new to resistance as any of us; I am less new to reflection, self-study and self-care. With that in mind, I wanna encourage us to enact some real, healthful self-care rituals, and to reflect on what self-care actually means.

 

Self Care Increases Awareness

We have all had the day/week/month/season where we just wanted to shut the world out, pull the covers over our heads, and come out when the storm has passed. Pain is real, and sometimes it feels intolerable: makes it hard to speak, hard to breathe, and feels like it will never go away. When that pain comes day after day after day, sometimes all you want is whatever will allow you not to feel it. Maybe it's weed, or chocolate, or anonymous sex, or online poker, or carbs, or bourbon, or gossip, or cruelty. Maybe it seems victimless or harmless. Whatever that practice is, it's not self-care, it's anesthesia. (And make no mistake: you engage in a behavior--gossip, junk food, avoidance, attachment, contempt, disgust, self-hatred--often enough and it becomes practice. Patterns establish ruts in the mind, and crawling out of those ruts and building new ones takes effort.)

Anesthesia does not make you feel better. It makes you feel nothing. It deadens your sensations. Some part of this is appealing in your pain, or fatigue, and you want it to be over. But underneath all that fatigue and pain is a tiny voice that says, I don't want to give up, but I need help! I need a break! Pay attention to that voice: it's not asking to be abused or numbed or silenced; it's asking for care and generosity. If you feel like that little voice is gone, and you can't hear it anymore, call someone

The difference between anesthesia and self-care is that self-care is generous. It gives something to you: rest, energy, a needed change in perspective, a chance to stretch and grow. It doesn't turn the volume down on all the things, and take from you. It gives you the strength, resources and resilience to keep doing the work.

 

Yoga is not Anesthesia

Feeling is the essence of life. Without feeling, we are not quite human. The real value of our asana practice is that, as we do pose after pose with awareness, we are inviting more sensitivity into our bodies and our lives. We are learning to tune in and feel. So we not only feel BETTER, but we FEEL better.
— Aadil Palkhivala

Self-care doesn't make you feel less, or nothing. It sometimes doesn't make even make you feel better. In my experience, self-care provides me with the tools I need for processing, for resting, and for understanding who I am in any particular context, so that I can show up from a more whole place within myself, even if that place is flawed, broken, vulnerable. While self-care can include pleasure, for me it takes a lot of conversations with myself about what would the best practice be that will help me be a better more whole version of myself as I move toward the work of providing spaces for healing, growth and compassion.

I know a lot of folks who go to yoga so they can tune out. Yoga class somehow seems less self-involved to us than playing online poker for countless hours, or holier than picking up a stranger to crawl into bed with us so we don't have to be alone. But underneath the Sanskrit and the talk of moving prana, when we use yoga as a means of not-feeling, we might as well be popping a Xanax with a white wine chaser.

Here's the thing: yoga wasn't designed as anesthesia. It's true, you can use it literally as pain relief: you can heal an aching back, or strengthen weak joints, you can lose weight and build strength and muscle tone. But the physical practice is just one of eight elements, and while yoga's goal is to "still the fluctuations of the mind", that stillness is not in pursuit of forgetfulness, numbness, and distance. 

"Yoga applies endurance, learning and commitment. It reduces alienation and cultivates empathy." Endurance, learning, commitment, empathy: what part of that sounds like, you won't feel quite as bad anymore? If this really is what our practice is--not (just) a strong back, flexible hips and the ability to strike an Instagram-worthy pose--if our practice is about reducing alienation (so you can connect with others, even those you feel aversion for) and cultivating empathy (especially with those you feel aversion for), then if we're using it as pain relief or as a bliss booster shot, we're missing something. We may be engaging in a practice of physical fitness, we may be infusing our body with fresh oxygen, and we all know how good that can feel. But we can grow our yoga beyond that. 

In threads of yoga, quoted above, Matthew Remski names the eight limbs of yoga: "relationship to other, relationship to self, poise, freedom of breath, freedom of senses, focus, contemplation and integration." (Can you spot asana in there somewhere?) He writes, "Contact with the other (yama) establishes your personhood (niyama), which is enhanced by groundedness (asana). Silent reverie upon the internal space of selfhood (pranayama through samyama) prepares you for a richer experience of otherness." This isn't what we usually hear from the solitary, ascetic practice of withdrawal in pursuit of Divinity. Even with our pocket computers and earbuds and all the ways we have to simulate connection with each other that practice certain and powerful alienation, the yoga practice at its most useful for us now can be one of a constant dance of moving in and down into ourselves, to more efficiently, fully and compassionately reach up and out to our community.

All this to say: when you feel shitty, go to yoga. If nothing else, the breathing and the moving will do you some good. Even so, be mindful of how you use the practice. If you find yourself craving the hard sweat and the pushpushpush when the shit is on top of you, remember: the most challenging physical practice that will make you forget may not be the right one for you. Those of us who consistently gravitate toward a vigorous practice should ask ourselves, am I using the practice as a distraction from something else? If you need not to think about the work, the problem, the stress for an hour, bless you. I understand. Leave it at the door, do your practice, and step back to it with renewed clarity and compassion. But be careful with the instinct to practice in pursuit of feeling less. If your practice is doing its job, you may be feeling more.

Self-Care is a Strategy for Resistance

We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for all Black people, and by extension all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.
— "Restorative Justice", Guiding Principles of Black Lives Matter movement

For the long-term, you'll want to establish a useful, sustainable self-care schedule/ritual that will ultimately be feeding and nourishing for you. You will know it's working when you can Show Up in the world for others without feeling overextended or exhausted. So often we spend our time slinging our feelings all over one another and then to cope we collapse and act out; I invite you to step into a self-care practice that is more supportive, useful, and sustainable.

As our energy starts to go out more often--as we're advocating for others, doing deep, and sometimes painful, self-study, as we're showing up more fully in the world--we find a struggle to strike a balance between putting resources in so we can put resources out. In some sense, your self-care ritual, like social justice, like self-improvement, like yamasvadhyaya and samyama, doesn't end, you're ever done; some days or seasons it feels easier to pursue than others. But we must do our best to stay consistent with our practices. Our community depends on us. 

So, important things to remember about self-care practices:

1. breath

This can't be surprising coming from a yogi. Prioritize your breath. You don't have to know a bunch of fancy techniques; even a few slow, conscious, deep breaths can go a long way toward bringing your awareness in with compassion. The time to take a breath gives us a chance to assess what it is we're feeling. If you can't do it in one, take another. Then take another. Use the breath to help teach you about what's going on in/with you, and if/when you're feeling especially triggered, make it dark and quiet (pratyahara: sanmukhi mudra, anyone?) and listen to your breath. Whether you're active or still, working gently or vigorously, study and care for your breath, and let it take precedence. The more I engage in the physical practice of yoga, the more I learn that for all of the fancy posture pyrotechnics that are a part of the yoga zeitgeist, the Oldheads had it right: pranayama is where the power, the gifts, the fruits really are.

2. bravery

Self-care takes bravery. Most people opt out of real, radical care for themselves. It's the reason that we lack the physical, energetic and relational resources to Show Up. It's easier to smoke Camel lights and eat Hot Fries (true story) than it is to examine what goes into us and how it effects what goes out. We're too scared to make the effort. It's hard to make yourself vulnerable by standing up for people who need allies, or to educate people who are too afraid to acknowledge their own ignorance. Think of self-care as an opportunity to practice behavior that will make it easier for you to be the person you want to be in community with others. A 20-minute nap or yoga nidra practice is powerful compared to an hour of video games. Foods and supplements that help you build muscle and release toxins are more effective long-term than a red-eye at the coffee shop or a 5-hour energy drink from the 7-11. If you are anything like me, choosing positive, nourishing habits over ones that feel easier but also depleting, this practice takes effort, and might not always be fun. But consider the bravery you're showing by making this choice. Don't abandon yourself. Your health and life are important enough for you to care for, and not to treat cavalierly. You need you, and we need you too. 

3. joy

Let it feel good: not the junk-food/anesthesia/acting out good, but genuinely good, the good you feel when you've accomplished something challenging, when you've gotten restorative body work done, at the end of a nourishing savasana. Learn to discern between the plastic-y, false sheen of "good" that frankenfood and habitual negativity can offer, and the clear, light, joyous freedom that sleep, movement, and laughter have in store. Laughter is key, do not forsake it. Laughter softens your belly, deepens your breath, improves your immunity, and releases hormones into your bloodstream that lower stress. Baby goats in pajamas, episodes of Too Cute, Kevin Hart, Russell Peters, Ali Wong, reruns of CarTalk, whatever does it for you: let laughter be a part of your ritual. Nature is also good: sunshine, dirt, damp pellets that fall from the sky. Water is life. The Earth is your mother. Spend time with her.

4. stillness

I am generous with definitions of this world, but I'll tell you this: it just about never has a screen involved. The world is pulling at you, seeking, craving, demanding your attention, so much so that it will lie to you without shame. (again, not exaggeration. don't be scared or confused. be informed.) Your attention is in small supply and high demand. You must carve time out of whatever else you're doing for stillness. For real: the legit, no-distractions full presence to be with yourself. Sleep is important, but sleep does not count. It's harder than it sounds, and it sounds hard. Be compassionate, but be vigilant. Your mind will run away, will throw anything up in front of you so you don't have to dwell in the stillness and quiet. Don't get pulled down the path of cognitive or analytical thought. With love and determination, pull your mind away from the distraction and back to the stillness. Maybe you need a mantra to repeat, maybe you need a place to rest your gaze, maybe you need a sound, whatever. Make it analog, make it consistent, and make it still.

5. humanity

In a workshop I took with Eric Shaw, he taught us that technologies of renunciation build tapas, remove us from our patterns and clarify us. That's fancy yogaspeak for the idea that giving up some of the day-to-day luxuries we take for granted can shake us up enough to allow clarity and lightness be present within us. Sounds good, right? I take it with a grain of salt, though, because I think that sometimes, some of us (and my hand is in the air here) can get carried away on the track in pursuit of "self-care" and wind up back in a pattern of monastic self-righteousness and judgement. So, stay human with yours, don't take this too seriously. 

Sometimes You Need Anesthesia

There's a reason the doc knocks you unconscious before she slices you open: there are some thresholds of pain that are simply unsafe and unwise for the body to experience. You know and I don't what your thresholds for pain and trauma are; I'm not going to tell you that you have to feel all the feels all the time. It's fucking exhausting. So: what you need is online poker? Okay. Set a timer for how long you'll play, how much you'll win or lose, and stick to it. What you need is anonymous sex? I get it. Be safe: ask the right questions of your partner (you don't need to know their name, but you do need to know when they were last tested for Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and HIV), and use a barrier. And if you need more conversation about what safer sex means, come talk to me or one of my colleagues. What you need is shitty food and shittier tv? I understand. Eat out of a bowl, not out of the container or the bag, and set an alarm, so you don't blink and six hours has gone by. We all need to act out sometimes, and if you do, do it and bless it; but put some boundaries on that shit, and keep your word. Make a choice for the future you that the present you will act out wisely. Be willing to accept the consequences of your anesthesia. They can sometimes be quite costly.

I'll say one final thing about self-care, especially for those of us who tend to output more than we input. A consistent, sustainable routine is indispensable. Burnout is real and dangerous. Do not abandon others because you could not take care of yourself. Word of that shit gets around. Your community needs you; better to give what you can and not more, than overdo it and leave someone who's depending on you holding the bag. We gotta keep taking care of ourselves so we can keep taking care of each other. 

 

Bonus: what does my self-care look like? I practice. I seldom do fancy shit that would look good on a magazine cover. I often do postures that move my spine through a full range of motion, deepen my breath and allow me to feel more at ease in my body, about 30 minutes, if I'm lucky. I run. I sit with my breath. I read. As often as I can, I practice this: it is everything. If I could, I'd do it daily. I chant: the body is 70% water. Sound moves more efficiently through water than air; I repeat sounds and words that are life-giving. When I have time, I engage the world around me and I light candles and throw cards and make a little magic.

History Repeating Itself

My Ayurveda teachers have taught me that the body struggles with change, even positive change, and that even bodies that tend toward change have a hard time with it. One way to pursue peace in the body and peace of mind, one way to achieve ease  and grounding, is to pursue repetition. The body craves pattern and repetition.

Let me tell you about a pattern of repetition I see around me: Black people are murdered by law enforcement, often, but not always, white. 

Who is craving this repetition? Who is made more peaceful, easier, healthier, by this pattern?

Did you know another black person was shot and killed by the police yesterday? His name was #AltonSterling. He was someone's father; he was trying to make a living; and I haven't watched the video (yes, there's video, and if you watch it, I hope it never leaves you), but I read this account from the Washington Post--which contains the video--and it sounds like he was not trying to resist. 

According to this project, Alton Sterling is one of 505 people who have died at the hands of police brutality in 2016, and in some other sources that number is closer to 558. It has happened in all 50 states. There are 25 more fatal shootings this year than there were last year, so our numbers are up. 

And if you didn't go looking for what's trending in your Twitter feed, or if some woke soul in your FB echo chamber didn't share any info about it, you probably have no idea.

Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police are able to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we will have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours.
— Jesse Williams

Yoga texts and yoga teachers often talk to me about transcending the body, about the edges of the body falling away, so that the divine spark within me can be still and grow and connect with the Divine Spark around us all. 

I have yet to hear anyone tell me how to practice if my body isn't safe on the surface of the planet. How do I deepen my breath if I can't breathe? How do I unroll my mat if I'm not sure I can step foot out my door? How am I to transcend my body if existing in my body is a criminal offense, punishable by execution without trial?

Get the fuck out of my face with that rhetoric, yoga. If you can tell me that life is an illusion, then you probably have the privilege of seldom living in fear of losing yours. I will transcend my body when we live in a world where I am safe enough to exist without being threatened by soldiers who move through my community with impunity and weapons. Until then, I will take my black female body into every space I move through, demanding my right to exist, to speak, to breathe, to reproduce if I choose, and to live as free as the rest of y'all. I will demand that my physical body is not to be transcended, but instead is to be celebrated and engaged with, is as powerful and important a tool in my spiritual journey as any mantra, any mudra, any spontaneous descent of samadhi. I don't care what day in July it is, I don't care how many fireworks go off, and I don't care what songs are sung about our history. We are not a nation of free people. And if you think that you are free, yoga, if you think your freedom is not bound up in mine, then you have profoundly misunderstood the very rhetoric you posit.

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

Square Footage

A close-up of a playground study by writer, artist, yogi and dear friend Adam Grossi. For more, visit www.adamgrossi.com.  

A close-up of a playground study by writer, artist, yogi and dear friend Adam Grossi. For more, visit www.adamgrossi.com.  

I have this memory of being in a yoga class with a teacher I wish I remembered more clearly. I can't see her face, but I remember her energy and passion in class. She would put us in these deep, powerful hip opening postures and say, "As you breathe in, create space in your hip; as you breathe out, take up that space, rest in that space." 

It's taken me a long time to understand what she was saying. At the time, all I could think about was the sensation in my butt: it was loud and bright, and softening into it, resting in it, seemed impossible only because it felt so big I wasn't sure there was room for both of us.  

This idea--that there isn't enough room--comes up in my life a lot.  I'm big, there is nothing small about me: I have a big body, big feet, a big mouth, and a big voice; I have a big personality, big feelings, a big heart, big anger, big generosity: it's all BIG. My whole life, since I was about 12, people have been telling me to be less, be smaller, to tone it down, quiet down. I'd never attract a man with an attitude so big. I intimidate people with a personality so big. I'm too much, there's too much, there's just not enough room for all of me. 

I believed it for a while, and I tried really hard to shrink. I softened my voice, slapped a plastic smile on my face, sublimated the fringes of my bigger, less desirable feelings into more accommodating, agreeable ones, and tried to deny the reality that I wasn't living as my true self. It took a lot of effort, and it cost me a lot.  

I don't try so hard to shrink anymore. I'm as big as I need to be, and I'm much more comfortable apologizing for it than trying to be small. The trade off, though, is I'm often concerned that there isn't enough room for me.  On the el, at the lunch table, even in the studio, I'm afraid of being squeezed out. 

I feel a lot of pressure in my world to accommodate, to create space for others. I identify as a woman, I like (most) people, I'm conciliatory and affectionate, and so I'll make room for you. On top of which, I've been socialized to be a "good girl", to accommodate, to acquiesce; even when it's not easy, my programming encourages me to sacrifice for others.  But it bugs me when people assume that. When they're out of room, and so I have to move me and mine, or get squeezed out, in order to accommodate them. I am particularly not a fan of the manspreading. As someone who's on public transit at least once a week, I have dealt with my fair share of dudes and their giant balls taking up space on the train. It bugs me, and I'm not above sitting down beside someone and spreading right back. Once, I moved someone to another seat--he was manspreading into my seat, on his left, and had his gym bag in the seat to his right--with the power of my inhale. I squared my shoulders up to his, and expanded my ribcage with every breath in, and after about five breaths, he got up and moved! Now, it isn't that I wanted the space all to myself, because I didn't. I'm okay to share: but share is important there. He wasn't sharing, and so I felt I had to take what I was owed. 

I see this aversion, and anxiety, about space all around me. At the yoga studio, on social media, in line at the ATM or coffee shop:  we're, none of us, sure that there are enough resources, that we can get what what we need (more often just want) and so we squeeze into each other's space, we take up too much space, we steal space. At one end of the spectrum is the person who takes up an extra seat for her purse and her fried chicken on the red line during rush hour, or the lurker peering over your shoulder as you get cash at the ATM. At the other end is the person who violates another's autonomy and personhood by using power and force to assault* others. 

Right now I feel mired in this anxiety of there not being enough for me. My partner and I are trying to move.  This move has been especially difficult: demoralizing, dehumanizing, and incredibly stressful. All of us in the process have been reduced to our roles--the "buyers", the "seller", "listing agent", "buyers' attorney"--and we aren't dealing with each other as people. Each of us is trying to get as much as we can, at the expense of others. 

We talk a lot about giving, about taking, but seldom do we talk about sharing. When someone asks me to share space, I am often happy to, and here's the difference: there's a kind of mutual witnessing and acknowledgement of one another in that process. Each of us knows that since we're sharing a resource--money, space, food, education, safety, the surface of the earth--that to be good to someone else is to be good to ourselves. What's yours is mine; mi casa es su casa.  

What if, rather than pushing and shoving, rather than feeling threatened by everyone all the time, we were able to view others as a part of us. Even those who seem anathema to all you are, care about and work toward? What if the mere existence of others wasn't quite such a threat to you, to me, to us? What if we didn't have to antagonize, to provoke, to annihilate one another? What if we could all share?

Naive? Maybe. But this is my work, and I think it makes the world an easier place to live. So next time you see me in the studio, don't ask me to move over; ask to share practice space with me. It'll be better for both of us.  

 

 

 

 

*It's easy for us to intellectualize about why people do violent, terrifying, deplorable things. It's just as easy to dismiss them as batshit mad.  I don't pretend to understand or explain. But I think it's better for all of us if we do the work to try to see a glimmer of humanity, of something we can relate to, even in those who feel the furthest from who we are. When we rob others of their humanity, we become a little less human. 

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.

Yogi-as-Saboteur

Under the Green Line, 11th St., Chicago circa 2014.  

Under the Green Line, 11th St., Chicago circa 2014.  

I recently read an article about yoga and appropriation that left me troubled. On paper, it sounded right up my street. Written by a yoga teacher in Florida, it offered suggestions on how to make sure that in your practice of yoga (not just asana), that you're honoring "the roots" of the practice. It was a great effort, but I felt the advice on avoiding cultural appropriation was a little too light for my taste. "A little humility, a little reverence, goes a long way", she writes. Yes, absolutely true. But what the hell does that mean? The further I read into the post, the more I realized  I was frustrated because I felt the advice was vague, and I wasn't sure about the context from where it was coming. 

It took me a lot of digging in corners corners of the internet to discover that the writer identifies--at least in one particular post--as an Indian woman. But the writer didn't mention their identity in the context of the advice.  I wondered, why--on a blog on their own website (and also in the Huffington Post), in a discussion about the appropriation of a practice deeply connected to identity and nationality, that has been colonized and arguably appropriated by the majority culture-- why did the writer not identify as a person of color, and as an Indian woman specifically?

I mean, if I give this even a minute of thought, I can throw up guesses at why. Sometimes wearing a specific label in the public discourse of a specific context can get you questions you don't want to answer, get you ignorance you don't want to tolerate. Coming out as an Indian woman in a conversation about how not to culturally appropriate yoga might mean getting comments like, "Does tantric yoga really give you multiple orgasms?" or "What's up with that red dot on the forehead?" Right? and that's just the low-hanging fruit: I have no idea the ignorant shite that actually gets said to Desi folk who move in the context of yoga in the West. But I bet it would make me angry. 

As someone whose identity sometimes puts me on the margins in certain communities, I hate it when I'm asked to speak for the sub-culture I'm part of (depending on the conversation it changes), and it happens so easily. In my new favorite podcast, the two hosts were fielding questions from white listeners addressing the idea, "How can I, as a white person, be an ally to people of color?" Their answers were so thoughtful, and not a little impatient at having to answer the question AGAIN, and you should definitely listen to the podcast, but it boiled down to: Don't be ally, do ally. Read a book. Then read all the books.*** Talk to your people who aren't doing this right, or who aren't doing it at all. Keep your mouth shut and listen as often as possible.  People of color are tired of talking the talk to folk who don't and won't listen; white person, you wanna be an ally, stop worrying about the label, pick up your knapsack of privilege and use it to create some justice in our world. 

So maybe the writer didn't self-identify in her space as Indian because she doesn't want that part of her identity to encompass how she's working in that context. Or maybe they thought it wasn't relevant to do so. Or maybe there's some element of what's happening in cultural appropriation that this conversation is missing sight of.  

I don't have the luxury of choosing whether or not to identify. There are definitely times when I feel I can manipulate my racial identity--code switching, anyone?--but I don't forget about it, and in the world I travel from day to day, it's always there: an indivisible part of me from which I'd never want to separate. I feel a responsibility to bear witness to my experience, and out of it, to work for a world I actually want to be around for. My experience is complicated, hard to quantify, and it's also black, it's woman, it's cis: I cannot do otherwise. In spaces that are working to raise consciousness (and sometimes in spaces that aren't), I feel an expectation that marginalized folk who step to those spaces are at most eager, but at least willing, to identify. I need us to be seen, to take up space and not to shrink from what we need to say or do. 

So I read this post I mentioned earlier, a kind of "How Not to Culturally Appropriate", and then I read this piece, positing cultural appropriation as a symptom of our world's systems of privilege and oppression. It was fresh and insightful and smart and so powerful. It hit the notes that I think I was seeking in the other piece: a clear, penetrating look at the real damage appropriation does, and a challenge to tear down our own moments and actions of appropriation by seeking to destroy the systems of oppression that exist in our world.

Like so many other systemic problems—police brutality, say, or a lack of diversity in film and television—cultural appropriation is a symptom, not the cause, of an oppressive and exploitative world order. And yes, these symptoms do reinforce the systems that created it (police brutality will reinforce the supremacy of Whiteness through fear and violence, therefore helping to enable more police brutality), but ridding society of any of these individual factors does not touch the systems of oppression that created it.
— "When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We're Missing the Point"--Ijeoma Oluo

So what are the systems of oppression in the yoga community? Drop-in and package prices that are prohibitively high? Studios that are inaccessible to the differently-abled? An absence of gender-neutral restrooms or changing rooms? Adjustment without consent? Using tools of worship as adornments of fashion? These are just the ones that I can see with my teeny vantage point; some of them, that I sometimes feel, are harder to articulate, and harder to wrestle with and uproot. How do I talk about the oppression that creates a space where I as a person of color feel both indelible and invisible at the same time, while I also feel at home in my asana practice? How do I talk about it so others will hear me? How do I reckon with the idea that teaching--an act which, at least in our society, inherently creates a kind of top-down, expert-novice, student-teacher dichotomy--requires me to share experience and information in a way that is grounded in a spiritual practice (yeah, I said it), that is not a part of my national or cultural heritage? How do I dismantle and transgress the classroom context so that I am not the expert in the room, but instead a servant to the students, and a compassionate, guiding witness in their individual and collective work?

This conversation about appropriation in the culture of how I do my life's work, how I earn my rent, how I serve--and initiate change in--my community by using a practice that feels at once mine and not-mine, well, it's a conversation I have with myself over and over. If I'm lucky, I occasionally have it with other yogis and teachers who are down for the cause as well, and if I'm doing my job, I have the conversation worth yogis and teachers who aren't down--this is harder but it matters. I get so excited about using yoga as a tool to dismantle the patriarchy, as an agent of subversion for the good of humanity. I don't think yoga is a rising tide that lifts all boats; I don't think that every class we go to is going to raise consciousness and  pursue/manifest justice and healing for all. But I think when we decide that our practice as teachers and students is also to subvert, to dismantle, and not to just open hamstrings and calm breath, we can begin to practice and to teach without appropriation. When we engage yoga as a tool of crumbling systems of oppression and equalizing systems of privilege, we can heal institutions and not just bodies. 

P.S. In the midst of drafting this, I watched Beyonce's "Formation" video and read a little bit about it, and I also watched that Coldplay video, "Hymn for the Weekend." Quite the spectacle in both, and talk about exploitative world order:  It gave me a  cultural appropriation headache. The best thing I read about it is here.

 

 

***Also, ohmygourd, in NO WAY, is this list exhaustive. There are so many I would add, not singularly in terms of black feminist education, but in consciousness raising. Maybe I'll put together a list in another post...