One of the benefits of teaching private yoga sessions, as I did at a friend's home last Thursday night in our quaint, university town, is you learn where the pedophiles live.
I was surprised by how much insight -- and terror -- this data provided. Down the street, an eighth grader tried to force someone's son to unzip. Down at the Cook County Court House, Chicago's child molesters are overwhelmingly middle-aged white men defended by the hostess of our group, a lawyer who unflinchingly warned us: Sex offenders are in our schools, in our friends' extended families. Do not drop off your kids for play dates. Beware of babysitters. We were horrified by the details she shared. With make up removed and chipped pedicures showing, we were all vulnerable on our yoga mats. In part, that's why we've come together. Yoga is one of the few physical and mental disciplines where vulnerability is not just permitted, but welcome.
It was a far cry from starting class with three oms, but I found that evening's conversation about sexual predators strangely liberating. It seems obvious to say, but everyone thinks about it, and unless the New York Times regularly features stories like last Sunday's magazine section did -- on compensating the victims of child pornography -- conversations about sexual violation are hard to come by. Everything about the topic is uncomfortable to broach, from the frequency in schools, to the likelihood of cover ups, to how quickly an assaulter can come and go.
We all had stories. One at a time we shared them, with jaws set, knees involuntarily hugged into chests; body language never lies. We told these stories as much to piece together our experience as to verify their commonality. It's not like our yoga class was dedicated to victims of sexual assault, and yet every one of us had a violation memory. One of us remembered being sexual assaulted while in a checkout line with her mother, staring at gum. Another remembered witnessing, and reporting, a masturbating man on an Austin city bus. I shared the story of my town's beloved fourth grade teacher who molested my classmates. It was not lost on any of us how weird it was to discuss sexual violation before a yoga session. To an outsider, it would seem the last thing on our minds was yoga. To me, yoga was the reason we could even approach this conversation.
After years of teaching and bearing witness to people's inner lives, I've seen a pattern. People treat small violations to the body and mind as ordinary, like they're as unavoidable as getting soaked by a car speeding through a puddle. We all find ways to cope with these violations -- the proposition from the boss, or the ejaculate on the doorknob, or worse. But these micro-assaults live on in our physical and mental memories. In the billion-dollar marketplace that is the personal growth industry, a myriad of therapies to stir in a drink, to wear while sleeping, and even to download, proliferate for the very purpose of healing. I've tried many, because I like that sort of thing, and some do help. But in my experience, yoga is one of the most effective healers of invisible wounds for the following reasons:
1). Yoga occurs quietly.
Just a few yoga classes are enough to boost sensitivity to hearing and seeing, and a regular yoga habit will have you noticing the deafening sound of your own thoughts. This is a good thing, but it means the absence of unnecessary equipment or even harsh lighting in a yoga environment is important -- as much as the presence of clean, unencumbered space. The quiet, intimate environment of my friend's home had everything to do with our ability to share those creepy memories. Calm, chaos-free environment really does lead to a calm, chaos-free mind.
2). Yoga facilitates safe connection to uncomfortable thoughts.
For my friends last Thursday, just arriving to the yoga session seemed to initiate a psychological shift. The conversation became more open, with stories that shared a subtext: I am worried about my body, my children's bodies, my community. I need to wash away my fears, because otherwise I will not sleep. I need to feel safe. The shift itself -- from bodily fear to open discussion -- may not at first seem like the property of yoga. However, I see that shift as the relationship between body and mind at work. I see it as a truthful example of both yogic and Freudian theory, that the subconscious influences consciousness, and that attention to one's own mind cultivates trust.
3). Yoga requires, but also enhances, self-trust.
If you don't know how to trust your body before a yoga class, you will have a better idea after one. I watched each of my friends on Thursday showcase different skills and limitations, and in doing so they learned the meaning of self-trust. One had hyper-flexible joints that made putting a foot behind her head a breeze; lifting herself off the floor, on the other hand, was impossible. She tried anyway. The point, really, is to try. Trying means you believe the outcome is manageable. Trying is healing.
4). Despite an unsafe and unseemly public image, yoga is not exploitive.
Yes, yoga has been a pariah in the news regarding physical injury (as has improper running or weight lifting). Yes, scandal is attached to many of its teachers (one with whom I trained). Still, the nurturing component to yoga is hard to beat. "Why do I always feel so amazing after yoga?" asks the burdened lawyer of our group. I recalled she has several triathlon trophies and is no stranger to exercise endorphins. I struggled to answer her. There's plenty of science that explains what happens to your body chemistry in yoga, but I know she was talking about another delicious feeling that comes from respectful, conscious practice.
5). Style aside, yoga is basically simple.
Whether it's fast, slow, expensive, donation-based, or pimped by a celebrity, yoga's healing modalities still come from the three-fold combination of deep breathing, precise movement, and mental stillness. Could you shed more calories at Zumba? Possibly. Is it an excuse to worry about expensive outfits, physical beauty and competition with others? It could be. But the heart of yoga is in listening and responding to your own self. It doesn't get simpler than that.
6). You can be terrible at yoga and still benefit.
With all the glossy catalogs and magazines full of beautiful yoga people, it's hard not to think about the steep learning curve. No need to fret, I told my friends on Thursday, even if balancing on one foot while raising your arms prettily over your head isn't possible today. "I have this cough," said the tallest one shyly. "I am so stiff from writing this stupid brief," said our hostess. Apologizing is one of those weird yoga impulses -- like feeling humiliated -- that does go away once other details capture your focus, whether your abs feel stronger, or the bottom of your foot comes out of its coma, or your racing heart finally steadies. I've been humiliated plenty in yoga classes: fallen on my head, slipped on my own sweat. After a while, humiliation is just one small ripple in a bigger pool of authentic healing experience.
I understand yoga may not be for everyone, and it may even seem like a strange remedy for the sex scandal blues. I cannot imagine, however, handling the intense social, political and personal challenges of American adulthood without drawing on yoga's very practical healing methods. But that's just me. See for yourself.
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