Yoga-Inspired 2: Coming Into Power

As I wrote earlier, I’ve been loving me my yoga these days. A recent class with the theme of traveling particularly blissed me out. But— just in the nick of time—the following week’s theme pulled me from the brink of total submission and back toward the almost-angry-at-anything-smacking-of-new-age camp. It touched a nerve about American entitlement that relates to women’s safety issues as well as global inequities.

The theme that killed my buzz was coming into power. My teacher, Steve, was talking about filling the kidneys and relaxing the adrenal glands.  Something about when the kidneys are full, the feet root, the thighs move back, the pelvis moves down, the stomach tucks, the fight or flight response is calmed and—ha!—personal power! Just try to knock down someone with full kidneys.

At first, I was totally going with this, working on floating my kidneys in plank pose. When Steve talked about how evil people can read a stance, and how they use this skill to prey on the weak and avoid the strong, the notion was crystal clear to me. I recognized it; I believe it, on some level.  As a solo woman traveler, the confidence in this kind of attitudinal protection was part of my arsenal, as I discussed in this post. But I also know it doesn’t always work.

As I was sweating through long-held warrior poses, I recalled my relationship with the owner of the bar/restaurant where I was working as a waitress. He was a Persian man, an artist, who lived in a loft above the restaurant with his wife and two little kids. He liked hiring young women and leering at us, and his wit and thick accent made the leering more bearable than it might have been. He assigned me an identity, “the strong one.” His leering was more respectful. “You’re strong like a mountain,” he used to tell me. “Look at her profile. See the way she stands,” he would say to people at his table. “She is strong like a mountain. Don’t mess with her! heh heh heh.” I rolled my eyes, but if I had to be spoken of in the third person, this was what I wanted to hear. I  had a mix of friendliness and haughtiness I wore at my service jobs designed to get tips and keep passes at bay, and I was getting ready for my trip to Asia. I wasn’t doing yoga at that time, but I was working out a lot, I was high on my growing independence. You betcha I was strong like a mountain! But in the end, that didn’t stop my boss from one night, drunk, reaching over the table where we sat with a small crowd and grabbing my tit, making a comment about wanting to see how juicy I was. I swatted his hand away. He laughed. Later, a male friend who’d been sitting there said he guessed I handled it well, but his voice suggested I could have done better.

I don’t recount this story because it was a major event or the notable violation of my person.  Just, it came up for me in yoga class as Steve waxed more and more enthusiastically about the imperviousness to ill chance affected by coming into one’s power. So did other disconnects—personal experiences, things I’d heard of or seen. I wonder something: When a woman who has come into her power is violated, does her original sense of herself help her recover more quickly? How does our view of our own power affect the way we interpret what happens to us? That question implicitly runs through many of the discussions about solo women traveling and safety issues, like this one on Nomadic Chick about couch surfing.

Because drunken creeps don’t always go for the easy mark. And truly evil people? This is where the almost-anger comes in. Were the tens of thousands of women mass raped in Bosnia not filling their kidneys properly? Were the tens of thousands of Tutsis murdered in Rwanda—women and men and children and babies—perceived to have weak postures? Half the children in the world live in poverty, without access to education, medical care, or adequate nutrition. Many of the people in my yoga studio wear stretchy pants and strappy tops that that cost more money than a sizable percentage of the population earns in a month.  That contrast has nothing to do with how effectively any of us are engaging our mula banda, and it’s far more likely to affect how susceptible we are to being preyed upon. I try not to always walk around under the weight of world poverty statistics—I’m sort of haunted by literary characters for whom this became almost dangerous, like the daughter in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral who ends up wearing a veil over her mouth so she doesn’t accidentally inhale any bugs and the woman in Hummingbird House who insists on living on a dollar a day as the world’s poorest do—but I’ve felt them as I continue thinking about the theme of that class. In a world view that believes posture and inner strength are the ultimate source of protection, the ultimate invitation of the divine, luck can be seen as earned and the lack of it a sort of a judgment, even when we pretend otherwise. Or am I missing something? Can anyone who’s really into yoga help me out here?

On a side note: Did you know that some Christians don’t believe yoga and Christianity are compatible? I guess it makes sense, from a fundamentalist perspective. Yoga is a spiritual practice. I actually thought some of the arguments on this point were pretty well-researched and edifying. But what worries me are arguments like this one, which rallies people to arms because an anti-Christian practice is being taught to children and used in schools.

Anyway: I’ve not pranayammed myself away from being a critical thinker yet, but I still love my yoga and think it can do many people a world of good. How dismaying if it becomes another grenade in the culture ways. Oi!

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Yoga-Inspired I: Still Traveling

I’ve been practicing yoga off and on for over twenty years. When I’m in the zone of a good class, sensory memories of other places I’ve done yoga flow through me: Sheffield, England, where I took my first classes; the beaches of Thailand; the Ayurvedic retreat outside of Katmandu where I submitted to a rigorous treatment; a rooftop in Pokhara; a loft in old-school Wicker Park; a massage room in Andersonville; the airy, urban studio at Yoga Circle; the sun rooms and living rooms and classrooms where I’ve practiced prenatal yoga; the sunny balcony of my mom’s house in New Mexico; the Chicago Cultural Center, where I rediscovered yoga in a life-saving class after an absence; the open-air, rooftop studio on Isla Mujeres enclosed by billowing white sheets. The Isla instructor was German, a traveler, who told stories of Bali, of being stuck in the Sonoran desert while guiding a busload of German tourists. The sheets flapped as we practiced, allowing glimpses of the crystalline Gulf of Mexico, the white tops of buildings, sea gulls mid-flight. I love the way the memories have no age, are not worn. They flutter and billow, like those sheets, tangling into each other, releasing. In the window of the room where I currently attend class, there’s often a slice of blue sky, even in the winter. Sparrows flutter. On good days, my heart fills as I practice. Yoga. Hey, it’s no secret. It’s freaking great.

I am especially in love with my Sunday morning Anusara yoga class. Two weeks ago, while I was standing in uttanasana, my teacher, Steve Pizzanello, put his hand on my back and incanted “you’re still traveling, you’re still traveling, you’re still traveling.” He was talking to the class about something specific—maybe that even as we were planted our heads were meant to still be traveling toward the front of the room, our thighs were meant to still be traveling toward the back—but I experienced him as speaking directly to me. Just beneath my skin, there’s often anxiety swirling, a tossing wind caused by conflicting pulls, toward family and stability, toward solitude and movement. Dollar bills are whisking around, and I’m trying to grasp at them, or damning myself for not. But at my core, there’s a calm certainty: I’m still traveling. Of course. Every day, here in Evanston, raising my children with my husband, walking to and from my job, I’m still traveling. It’s one thing. My teacher’s words and my body’s response to them gave me a sail to harness the wind, to move this knowledge beyond my core. It was a powerful moment for me.

The moment passed—just like youth, like vacations and seasons—but it also remains.

If you’re interested in some great writing from a yogi, mother, and writer, I recommend the blog Mothers of Invention.