Sins of the Fathers

 

When I sit down to write a blog post about yoga, my practice, and what it has meant to me, I hesitate. It seems ideal and trendy and useful. But I haven’t managed to do it, even though I’ve planned to for over a year now. 

Part of the reason I avoid writing about yoga, I think, is that I have had far more transcendental experience in my practice of Christian mysticism. Yoga offers me undeniable physical benefits that I have come to rely on and am utterly grateful for, but being the authentic-to-a-flaw person I am, I refuse to fabricate tales of enlightenment via Indian mantras and fables (although I have caught myself envying these sorts of experiences as if they may validate my white lady yoga practice). I know there is something else at play. I struggle to put my finger on it. 

I passed the 200hr (a sort of entry-level yoga teacher certification) course in May 2018, and have taught 1-5 classes per week since then. That’s a level of dedication I am proud of, yet I feel like a bit of an imposter when I teach yoga. Sure, I was trained. But these are ancient spiritual practices linked to ancient Indian texts like the Bhagavad Gita & the Vedas that I haven’t even made it through yet. I read Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, but I’ve never set foot in India, the land where it originated! (I’ve never set foot in the Middle East, either, but I have read the Bible cover-to-cover several times!) Plus, I’m white. I’m female. So many yoga teachers in the U.S.A. and a disproportionate number of yoga teachers in the city where I live are white women. Are we pimping someone else’s genius again? Are we continuing the economy of white gain at the expense of people of color? All that to say, writing about yoga, capitalizing on this ancient system of stretches, postures, meditations, and breathing exercises that I have barely scratched the surface of, makes me uncomfortable.

I wrestle with the history of my people, the white race, on a daily basis. (Most of my family members would be appalled to hear me say that.) People every day defend white privilege and white pride, despite the statistics that prove the systemic discrimination that exists against people of color (specifically in the U.S.A.). Unfortunately, it has become a truly divisive issue.

India was colonized by the British–white folks at the time–who immediately implemented systems of taxation on the Indian people. Whether or not my lineage tracks back to those colonizers, heritage is heritage. My ancestors crossed the Atlantic from Europe. And their skin was white, as is mine.

I hadn’t been able to reconcile this feeling until I stumbled upon a quote in Barack Obama’s book Dreams From my Father. In the book, Barack is on a Kenyan safari with several people, among whom is an older white doctor who was raised on the continent of Africa and, at the time when his path crossed with Barack’s, lived in Kenya. He says, “Perhaps I can never call this place home…Sins of the father, you know. I’ve learned to accept that…I do love this place, though.” 

Maybe I am uncomfortable writing about yoga not only because I know so little in comparison to the great body of knowledge that exists, but also because of the sins of my fathers. Perhaps it is 100% right that I feel this discomfort. It results from a dark history, the flaws of my fathers. I can hold this uneasiness and still find life in my yoga practice, sharing it by teaching and writing. In fact, my privilege in studying and practicing yoga gives me the responsibility to share this with people who are unable to access it.

After all, my favorite yoga teachers are a handful of white women in Little Rock, a free-spirited African American named Jessamyn Stanley, and a slight Jewish woman with a big smile.

Despite our sins as white people, we are given gifts, invited to continue to participate in the story of humanity. There is great responsibility in this. Every breath and subtle movement in my practice is an offering back to the Universe, the human family.

Sins, saints, and saviors, we all exist on the same planet.

There is room in me for the pain and the practice. I take neither lightly.

Namaste.

 

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The Body Binary

“We are made, the scriptures of all religions assure us, in the image of God. Nothing can change that original goodness.” ~ Eknath Easwaran (via Center for Action and Contemplation )

Three 8th graders sit at the only rectangular table in my classroom, a sort of nook against the wall across from my desk. There is a lamp with a shade that has half of the globe printed on it, and a glass cup that I use as a pencil holder, whuch my mom gave me (“You got this” it reads). The three boys are all on the football team at their school. They work out every week day & I imagine that they play backyard sports on the weekends. Each one is thin, one boy with a thicker build than the other two, but still, his would be  considered a slender body.

“I’m fat,” that boy says, candidly contributing to the conversation. The other boys say no, not really. He doesn’t react but I can tell, from my covert post behind my laptop, that he really believes it. He’s not slight like his friends so he must be the only alternative: fat. The implication is, to be fat is a bad thing.

As a girl, body image insecurity was an every day reality for me. There seemed to be two kinds of women at church: those chronically overweight who spoke with shame about their inability to lose weight, or those thin & nearly without-fail, riddled with anxiety, always carrying diet sodas in hand. My body, being stocky in comparison to most white women, didn’t fall in the second category. Yet from a young age I rejected accepting the other category. I wobbled between each extreme, moving at one time in an anorexic direction, then bouncing towards disordered binge eating. The journey with my body & what I eat is still in process, now at the age of 25.

Why would I be surprised that today’s children, inundated with media images of other people’s bodies, are struggling with the same issues? Human problems are inherited & shared, after all. We’re a web of hands reaching out to one another; finding flesh equals a bit of comfort.

I notice that boys are less hesitant to verbalize how they see themselves while girls keep image struggles under wraps, quick to console any of their friends who admits to feeling or looking “fat”.

An eight & a six year old that I regularly care for have small brown bodies. The younger boy is built: in the summer he sports a V shaped back & a chiseled six pack–complete with popping obliques! I imagine a coach seeing his body, seeing potential there, even dollar signs for college scholarships. When I asked the boys if they think they are fat, the beanpole shaped eight year old said, “no”, while the younger brother said, “yes”.

I’m not sure what would have been the most helpful thing for me to say in that moment. Had I let him know I too felt “fat” sometimes, I may have led him to think he was right about it, or, even worse, I may have confirmed the fatphobic lie that there is something inherently wrong with being “overweight”. Or if I immediately told him he wasn’t fat, I could lose that window into his mind, as he might recieve it as a rebuke or correction of the honest feeling he had shared with me. In an attempt to avoid complicating their already complex experience, I said nothing.

The inability to connect in a loving & accepting way with our bodies perhaps leads us to alienation from our inner voice as well. The body is our island on this sprawling planet. It’s the home of the mind: opinions, doubts, mirages, thoughts, the spirit: fear, hope, energies of the past & the future, & the heart: love, peace, rejection, grief. We operate out of these four-limbed (for most of us), 10-toed, hairy meat sacks. They are inseparable from our identity as humans.

Yet the body isn’t all that we are. “Fat” or “skinny” are reductive terms, used as static labels. What you are, what you aren’t. Unfortunately often they answer the question of who you are, who you aren’t.

I wonder if the boys at the table ever think about their dynamic characteristics, the ones that have more power to shape the nature of their lived experience. Compassionate, loving, forgiving, hopeful, strong, enduring, wise. Certainly they would feel more empowered if they were encouraged to cultivate those traits rather than find themselves in the elusive & reductive binary of “fat” & “skinny”. They could find the mark of their place in the human story written over every inch of their bodies.

 

Essence After Death

 

I remember the physical presence of my friend from childhood, who played on my basketball team, and was a romantic at heart. She passed away too young, like the most beautiful souls seem to do.

My last job was at a school for children with special needs. A little girl named Abby stood close to me not long after I started to work there. She looked up at me with blue eyes, clear as the sky is when the sun comes up after a snow, and asked, “is it okay if I give you a hug?”

There were endearing distances between each of her teeth and it nudged a memory in me. When I said yes, a smile lit up her face. Her mouth becaume unbelievably wide–gorgeous. It was when she wrapped thin arms around my waist that I realized what the memory was. The friend from childhood, who passed away over five years ago.

Her essence was there in my slender new student.

Memories from the earliest part of my life elude me completely. I have theories as to why: trauma, anxiety, hyperactivity. I only remember photos of my friend when she was the age of my student, one specific photo comes to mind of her dressed in a Wal-Mart princess costume with a silver tiara.

God, I miss her.

Abby, my former student, has labels placed on her: cognitively disabled, socially impaired, disgraphic, among clinical diagnoses that I didn’t have time to read up on. Inside of the school, her reality is good. Hovering teachers police social interactions, diffuse potential bullying.

I wonder if my friend’s reality would have been good. She was cognitively and socially impaired, I know that much. That was part of why I loved her, and chose to be as loyal a friend as I could be (loyalty definitely isn’t one of my core values. I work at it.). I have always felt freer, more at peace and enlightened in the company of “disabled” (but not really disabled) people, particularly children. Were she still alive I would be able to analyze her, apply words in my head that make sense of her. Yet she is dead, which  makes no sense at all.

Having loved disabled students (really loved them, mind you. Not just-for-a-paycheck love) doesn’t mean I am, was or ever will be exempt from ableism, just as having loved a man does not exempt me from sexism, nor does having loved people of color exempt me from racism (Ableism: . Urban Dictionary ). In fact, I identified ableism within myself more for the time I spent at that school. Hopefully, I will continue to identify this and move away from it.

I wish my friend was still here, not just so I could feel her arms wrap around me in a gangly hug like that from my student. I wish she was here so I could feel her essence, that bubbly uniqueness that challenged me to release my hold on society’s hierarchical view of humanity. Everyone had a fair chance on the playing field of her mind, which is rare to find! Most of all I wish I had extra opportunities to speak up on her behalf. I wish I had 1,000 chances more to defend her, claim her, stand by her side.

I try my best to do this every day. It’s selfish, really. It makes me feel alive to speak for those who can’t engage with the world on its’ rat-race level. Advocating for those marginalized by physical and/or cognitive differences brings a level of liveliness to my life. Society’s structures, biases, prejudices make me want to float away. Those who see things clearly (and more creatively!), ground me.

Abby’s hug, her itch for attention, physical stimuli, or whatever prompted her to request a hug, was a gift from the one already gone. I squeezed her meaningfully in return. For who she is, and who my friend was, I embraced her, and kissed the top of her head, crowned with golden hair.

 

 

hostile/rejection

Within the within

of me I insert

my hands emerge with

a dark, grotesque cobwebbed mass entangled around my true self:

a beating heart.

True self is a heartbeat wrapped in the lies

I have told, the truths I have

not told, banished beneath embarassments, memories of off-kelter nights, wrong

words, knives pointed inward, wrists 

slit, betrayals knit, lack, flaws, every

thing else I am or am not that I think I should or should not be

myself.

My hands press into the grungy blob I can’t feel

the beat of true self hidden within

my within. Husk the fragment, feel

needles of light, a closeness not claustrophobic like

clouds hung low in the sky no

rain drops fall. The space this pressure creates peels the layers away, feels

beat of true self hidden within my

within.

The heartbeat is there, fragile as

a fairy whisper of wonder: will she ever leave

me alone? The compulsion to caress and near the heartbeat is overshadowed by

the need to change

–reject–

her.

 

(At the end) I find the opaque blob to be the sum:

pain + shame + fear = separation from essence. The cruelest sensation known

to humankind.

Upon the self that is roped within

my self I inflict

this home-cooked hostility

habitually.