I took a month to become trained as a yoga teacher. Here’s what I learned about race and equity. (Part 2)
With my legs separated four feet apart and both arms stretching confidently in opposite directions, the correction came from my instructor. Even though I was expending maximum physical and mental effort, it was the same correction that I had received from other teachers — whether it was a verbal cue, a look, or just an absence of praise. “Shoulder more to the right; chin to shoulder,” the teacher would say. I knew what those words meant, and technically, I also knew how to execute them. But here I was being corrected, which meant I must be missing something — I just did not know how. These moments would repeat themselves every class, and every time, I would briefly give them my attention and then redirect it to something else. I always let the correction go.
It was after one class that another teacher asked me in front of the class if I really understood what she was saying. “Do you know what I mean when I give this correction?’’ I could have lied and protected myself, but it was clear that I didn’t know. I hung my head, and the voice of my six-year-old self came out of my 43-year-old body: “No.”
The teacher pulled me aside, and we moved step by step through the words. I trusted the parts of the instruction that I had heard each time before and noticed the parts I heard for the very first time. I performed each command as directed and then felt a trembling sensation — not debilitating, but intense enough to remind me that I am alive. My body was breaking a long-held pattern, and the sensation was so intense that my mind quieted for a moment. It was discomfort, weakness, and fear; the stress of finding and using tight muscles. It was the agony and embarrassment of mental and physical change. It was the recognition of some mysterious tension in my body, inherited from the past or a memory from this lifetime, demanding to be seen and acknowledged.
My process — sticking to what I knew, even as I became aware of its wrongness — had kept me from growth. But my habits and the stories I told myself didn’t allow me to acknowledge it until that moment. When the teacher said, “That is what you should feel,” I realized that I hadn’t felt that sensation of stretching, uncovering, and discovering a new pathway in that part of my body since the beginning of my practice. I realized that I had discovered something new and different.
Our minds are powerful. They host our best assets and our most limiting curses. When I resisted this one correction over and over, my mind and body were working together to protect old, comfortable patterns. What other patterns or stories or experiences live in the connective tissue holding me together? How else have I lost range of motion? How do I compensate in one area to cover the weakness in another? What is the impact on my own growth and my relationship with others? What else needs my attention that I cannot see?
Our bodies are our classrooms. When we challenge our physical comfort, our bodies and their reactions can teach us about ourselves. I was trying to change an existing pattern within the framework of my current understanding of the posture. By focusing my attention on the outcome, and the ease with which I thought I should achieve it, I was not always aware of the importance of each step in the process. And that is my work: slowing down enough to breathe through each step, hear each step, and then command my body accordingly. When I experience tightness, my work is to pay attention and breathe through it instead of practicing avoidance. My work is to slow down enough to be aware of my relationship with myself — paying attention to my experience and not participating in economies of vanity. It really does not matter what it looks like on the outside when it’s wrong on the inside.
So what does this have to do with race, equity, design, and innovation? White supremacy and other forms of body supremacy reduce us to our bodies and ignore the fact that the mind and body are inextricably integrated. They draw our attention to only our outsides, passing over our inner tightness, darkness, and our inherited stories or traumas. Body supremacy erases the past and how it shows up in the present — both in our own bodies and in how our bodies relate to others.
When our minds imagine that the bodies we inhabit are superior by virtue of physical appearance, creed, or culture, they recoil from proximity to bodies that are different — unless to prove an imagined superiority. Supremacy makes us believe that the private way for one is the public way for all. When we are all reduced to our bodies — disconnected on the inside and separated on the outside — we eschew the teachers and instructions we might otherwise encounter. Our insulated beliefs and actions scale to the size of movements, driven by narratives of disconnection and separation.
Socialized ideas of body supremacy (such as white supremacy and patriarchal structures) and their manifestations in our social contracts are limitations of the mind that powerfully direct the actions of the body. They limit our range of motion and how we move in the world. When I hear messages that bodies like mine are not flexible, I don’t engage in actions that challenge my flexibility. When I hear messages that bodies like mine should not experience joy and be healed, I don’t engage in actions or heed corrections that heal. When we are not forced to slow down and allow ourselves to be challenged in public, we imagine that our own personal, private ways of believing, thinking, and behaving are effective or represent the ideal, even though they cause harm to ourselves and others. Ears may not hear correction. Eyes may not recognize the teacher. The new learning cannot be embodied.
Our bodies matter. Centering and exploring the intelligence, stories, and wisdom they hold is key. We can work to become connected to ourselves and others, intentionally challenge our beliefs, and prepare for the unexpected and powerful sensations that create the emergence of light and our better selves. But we cannot do that alone. When we allow corrective instruction, we can find our best teachers and most effective instructions within our own bodies — creating opportunities for our minds to change.