I took a month to become trained as a yoga teacher. Here’s what I learned about race and equity. (Part 1)
In my work, I often ask people to “trust the process” — and to trust me, the designer of it. However, it has been a long time since I was a learner, and I forgot what it meant to truly trust a process until I took a month to become trained as a yoga teacher. Never have I had an experience that created simultaneous physical, emotional, and mental challenges. With these challenges, it became clear to me what “trusting the process” really means in practice — and how it can help us create a more just world.
More than just watching from the sidelines and playing safe, trusting the process is a surrender. It’s allowing the process — the tensions, twists, and turns — to do with you what it will, knowing and believing it will be okay. It’s knowing that any physical or mental pain that arises is itself the teacher. It means allowing yourself to be willfully disoriented and disordered; to invite a wrestling match of yourselves — your current self and your emerging self. It means believing that there is another side and that who you are going to be on that side is a stronger, wiser, and more alive version of yourself. It is a small death that paves the way for a new life.
My journey to becoming a yoga instructor was marked with some core learnings, particularly about how to embody difficult and complex ideas. I use “embody” purposefully. Learning that does not change how the body operates — what it sees, hears, understands, and then ultimately performs — has not been embodied. As a teacher of equity and design who seeks to create a more just world, I am coming to understand the role of embodiment in making change. In order to create genuine and lasting change, we must interrupt existing patterns of behavior and pathways of interpreting information, then integrate this new knowledge into the body. If we skip this step of mind-body integration, we will keep reacting to the information our senses gather in the same ways we always have. And to integrate mind and body in this way is a discourse shift that requires a radical, inclusive, public practice.
Practice is how we integrate and assimilate new information into our schemas. But if repetition is the mother of skill, as it’s often said, where does this repetition happen? The hatha yoga I study is rooted in an intimate, prescriptive dialogue between the teacher and practitioner. The teacher’s words command the practitioner’s body to perform actions beyond what the mind may perceive as possible. As a skilled practitioner, I was comfortable practicing the postures (or asana) in public. But as an instructor, mastering the prescriptive dialogue was a challenge.
Demonstrating fluency of a new language at someone else’s command often leaves me searching for the right words at the right time. Sometimes what results is functional or productive. Other times, it is harmful. But the accountability of practicing in public has been a reminder that learning is hard and messy — so much so that we may misinterpret the sometimes painful process of learning as the product of our journey. We might be changing and growing over time while still staying stuck in moments of grief, embarrassment, and despair. We may not be able to let others grow. Worse yet, we may not let ourselves grow.
Our culture values public perfection and mastery in public but not public practice, especially when it comes to the dialogues about our identities — who we are, who we think we are, and who we have a right to become. Rare is the environment that allows us to practice this dialogue publicly — that allows us to fall down, tongue tied and bewildered, and celebrates us when we rise and try again. But this is the very environment that is essential for us to become fluent in each other’s cultural codes and to connect across lines of difference. The essential dialogue that transcends the appearance of our bodies and connects us to each other can only be shared and practiced in public. It is in public that our different bodies have the chance and choice to connect and relate to each other. The fear of falling, failing, or being seen as a novice keeps our race and equity practice contained in books, journals, and small conversation. It goes into our bodies, but it rarely comes out. We need spaces where we can practice dialogues of becoming in public and develop the fluency that will ultimately help each of us put ourselves back together. We need public spaces to practice revealing the often imperfect nature of our private selves. We need public spaces where we can trust the process, knowing that as we practice in public, we transform in private.
So what sort of practice is required for our bodies and minds to become reordered by, and reoriented toward, equity and justice? Perhaps we need to first undergo the private reckoning that is necessary to see the contradictions in ourselves — to tend to them with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and still like what we see — not because we are perfect, but because we are still in process. But there will be a moment when our private practice must become public. In this stillness, we have to hold the inherent contradiction that emerges with the desire for mastery in public without the hard work, stumbling, and embarrassment on which mastery is built. We have to get comfortable with all parts of the journey — because it’s all a part of the process, and it is beautifully human.