The Issues in the Tissues: Seeking Alignment through Yoga

The Issues in the Tissues: Seeking Alignment Through Yoga
by Nikki Myers and Becky Thompson

When Nikki’s grandson posted a picture of himself on facebook recently, celebrating signing his first apartment lease, all Nikki could see was the image of a young black man in a hoodie. Instead of celebrating with him, she felt nervous for him in a world in which black men in hoodies are so often in danger. 

For us, yoga is not only about finding peace in the body, but also about bringing that peace into the external world so that our children and grandchildren can live in safer more open communities and so that we can celebrate together. 

The world we see around us is difficult. Racism, violence, and the struggle for basic rights surround us. People are reeling from the subtle impact of the internet age that, ironic as it may be, too often leaves us lonely and disconnected. Yoga has the power to unlock the passionate work for justice that will give us hope. Through our practice, we are not looking for an escape from the world around us; rather, we are seeking to align ourselves in ways that release energy, encourage healing, and open us to reconciliation.

The two of us—an American somatic healer of African descent and an American activist and poet of Danish descent—offer trainings together for yogi activists. Since we met, we have been discussing our shared concerns about what it will take to create yoga communities that reflect the multiracial world we call home and cultivate awareness and alignment with social justice, equity, and healing. We came to our friendship sharing much excitement about yoga: its way of helping us deal with the issues that live in our tissues; its potential to help people cope with multiple stresses and traumas; and its foundational commitment to love as the key to any liberation struggle. 

For both of us, this struggle is personal. We are yogis; addicts in recovery; anti-racism activists; dancers and lovers of music; and mothers of African American children, worried for them and excited by their dreams. Our stories and experiences with yoga keep us teaching—in church basements, on straw mats in Thailand, at social justice demonstrations, at conferences, and in community centers.

The meaning of yoga as we have come to understand it—yoking together polarities and finding union in one’s body and community—offers us models for personal and communal transformation. Master yogi, Angela Farmer, teaches how the many domes of our bodies—the two half domes that make one beautiful dome between our feet, the intimate dome of our perineum, the dome that makes the diaphragm a remarkable parachute for breath, the dome of taste and discernment at the roof of our mouths, and the dome that opens to the sky—tell us that the body can find perfect alignment. These stacked domes lie at the very center of the body. When they are in alignment, the prana (life force) can travel directly up the body. Finding such body alignment through yoga can feel like being zipped up and connected to an infinite power source—safe and alive and powerful all at once. Finding alignment in our bodies can help make our world whole if we can find ways of extending such notions of alignment and prana into our communities and society. Through practice, we discover that we are microcosms of the universe. The principles of yoga contain ways of bringing communities into harmony. 

We share Silvia Boorstein’s assertion—found in her essay, “I Got Kinder”—that with each decade of contemplative practice one can emerge “more zealous than ever about social activism.” Practicing and teaching yoga has taught us to see how social injustices (racism, incarceration, sexual abuse) are carried in the body. And we have seen how, through the practice of yoga, people have been able to come into a deeper, more peaceful relationship with their bodies, which in turn allows them to bring more peace and understanding to their relationships and to their interactions with the larger world.

In the workshops and trainings we offer, we teach that yoga is based on truth telling (which is the second yama, law of life, that Patanjali identified in the Yoga Sutras). This truth telling requires being honest about our body’s injuries and capacities as well as being honest about our various familial and cultural histories. In Becky’s life, such honesty has meant facing her Mormon roots. In polygamous families, the patriarch was often “given” a tract of land for each wife. The Mormon takeover of Native American land was exponentially increased by these patriarchal practices. In Becky’s family lineage, white privilege and patriarchy reinforced each other. For Becky, self-castigating and shaming thoughts that sometimes nag at her, on and off the mat, partially relate to her cultural history. Quieting these voices through long-term yoga, particularly through intensely physical practice, has been integral to her anti-racist work, which requires white women to move beyond shame and guilt into a place of clarity and action.   

For Nikki, honesty about her family has included her decision to speak up that her great-grandmother was a product of rape by a slave master. Nikki’s grandfather looked white (except for his broad nose), and Nikki’s family attributed great value to his skin color and hair texture, a reality that reflected deep internalized racism. Historically, her family focused on the skin color and hair texture that got passed along, not the horror of the rape that introduced such genes. 

Truth telling means reaching beyond what poet and anti-racist activist Adrienne Rich has termed in Blood, Bread, and Poetry, “historical amnesia”—a denial and forgetting of the truth of US history. Rallying against this amnesia is essential for us as we aim to build multiracial communities that can sustain us. 

A painful example of how this kind of historical amnesia played itself out in a yoga class was a time when Nikki heard the yoga teacher wrongfully attribute the  famous phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” to a white woman—it was first said not by a white woman but by the noted black Civil Rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer. Nikki can still remember a well of anger filling her body—an anger that was both her own and that of generations of Black women whose art, activism, and creativity have been mis-attributed, ignored, or denied. In that moment, Nikki made a conscious decision to focus deeply during the class, holding her postures for lengthy periods to help let the anger release. She also vocalized her anger, with deep guttural sounds, in goddess and other poses, allowing her body to release her fury. 

Such truth telling asks us to reckon with what poet Mary O’Reilley in her book, Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice, calls the “stories that have been caught in our throats.” Whatever our personal trauma, collective suffering, internalized oppression, or hidden shame, one of the many benefits of a steady yoga practice is the way it can keep us safe on the mat. The practice allows us to keep opening, healing, and being in stillness until we begin to find words for what we have lived through and for the pain we have caused others. 

Some yoga workshops and teacher trainings allow time to pair yoga practices with writing sessions, talking circles, and other contemplative practices in order to make room for people to talk about their histories, including their experiences of trauma and resilience. Such pairings can deepen people’s asana practices and incite marvelous collective openings among practitioners, creating space for healing from recent and decades’ old injuries and revealing how it is never too late to confront burdens or conflicts. 

From her yoga practice, Nikki has found it particularly freeing to talk publicly about her history as a commercial sex worker. Sharing stories and experiences openly with students as we teach gives people permission to release their own stories and experiences both at cognitive and somatic levels. At a recent workshop Nikki offered, a young woman talked about her early childhood sexual trauma and how it contributed to “choices” she made around sex. During the subsequent core-based yoga practice Nikki taught, she witnessed a tremor in this young woman’s thigh as the pain released. In the discussion following the practice, the woman spoke of this experience as a release of sexual energy that was both surprising and liberating.

As teachers, we marvel at our students’ courage. And as practitioners ourselves, we know that our longevity as teachers requires us to do our own healing each day. We are the students and they are us. Our own healing is only as strong as our willingness to let go of our own secrets as we continue to practice.

In a recent workshop Becky facilitated on yoga, addictions, and recovery at the Peaceful Spirit treatment center on the Southern Ute reservation in Colorado, Becky was moved by the clinical supervisor’s decision to include both the clients and the staff in the writing and yoga workshop. While initially worried that power differentials would make for strained and superficial sharing, Becky found that the shared space opened connections. Both the counselors and clients immersed deeply in their writing and in the yoga workshop. Everybody walked their down dogs around the room moaning and laughing together, connected and equal for the moment. People cheered each other on when one person was able to roll through the happy baby pose for the first time and when another hiked up into a shoulder stand. At lunch, everyone ate together. There was an understanding that everyone at Peaceful Spirit is healing every day, and respect reigned. 

We have found that there can be a tendency in yoga communities to want to be healed already—to jump right to chanting “om” together as if that luscious sound will be enough to eliminate power inequities, micro- and macro-aggressions, and forms of elitism practiced in the world around us. But “om” is only as strong as the integrity we bring to this sound and the communities in which we chant it. By integrity, we mean the alignment of our actions and values. 

We want to bring yoga to all communities and have it reflect all of our histories, our struggles, and our triumphs. We do not only teach yoga in comfortable spa-like settings, but also in community centers that can be chaotic, loud places. (Where Becky teaches, air conditioning blasts in winter, and industrial-sized refrigerators sound like planes taking off inside the yoga studio). It is all the more beautiful and important to be able to find alignment in such places and communities, where just getting to class on public transportation can be a real challenge for students

We practice and teach a yoga that is not just about personal body alignment but is also about spiritual, community, and societal alignment. We teach a yoga that will not and cannot ignore the suffering, pain, and injustice within or outside ourselves. Without truth telling and integrity, the alignment of the “om” sound can end up sounding tinny, hollow, and incomplete. A rich and bountiful “om” is one that requires us to ask ourselves many questions: What are the hot coals in our lives that we have been avoiding? How is our practice and community open to the incredible mosaic of people living on this land? What voices do we need to listen for and hear so that our bodies and communities are aligned to the world around us? 

Our goal is to encourage people to come to yoga not just as a personal practice but also as a communal one. Part of what is beautiful for the two of us working together is the ways in which we encourage each other to reach deeper truths than we could find in a solo practice. Nikki encourages Becky to find the dance in yoga—movement that has been buried in years of academic study and old demons. Becky encourages Nikki to write from her solar plexus even if it means “airing dirty laundry.” 

The dance of yoga starts with Audre Lorde’s poetic teaching (found in Sister Outsider) that difference, as such, is the dialectic that sparks the imagination. All of us will need that imagination to create communities that can sustain us, and that can be a place of deep alignment as we together seek healing and justice. §