One of my favorite teachers once said, “There is a difference in knowing with your brain than knowing with your body.” I began to understand this concept the moment I taught my first beginner yoga class at Family Justice Center. As a teenager, I was ashamed of my up bringing, and the moment I had the chance to escape from my life with my parents, I did so as quickly as I could. I so desperately wanted to separate myself from the story of physical violence and drug abuse I witnessed in my family. Walking away from my family’s story of violence and abuse also meant that I was separating myself from cultural traditions, and from what it meant to be a first generation American. I associated my cultural upbringing with only the negative things that I witnessed growing up as well as those reflected as stereotypes in society and media. I worked hard to separate myself from my culture and any association with abuse, addiction, male chauvinism and misogyny. Although I find remnants of that life when I visit my family now, I haven’t felt the need to run because I believe that suffering is no longer my story. That is, until I was in front of classroom filled of women that survived abuse, addiction and the hateful tyranny of misogynies that I felt it all come back to me again.
As I walked into the empty yoga room I could feel some uneasiness and heaviness in the pit of my stomach. Despite having taught yoga before the overwhelming heaviness felt different than that of nerves. After a few minutes, women began walking through the door; women of all shapes, sizes and skin colors. As I begin our class I notice the feeling of uneasiness come over me again. A myriad of emotions fill my mind. I feel connected, yet detached. I feel anxious, nervous, annoyed and angry. I have no idea where any of these feelings are stemming from or why they were coming up during the most inopportune time.
I begin to stumble over my words and feel as though I have blanked on everything I was going to teach. Why do I feel this way?
It took me a few days to realize that I was feeling detached from these women because I don’t know their lives and because they are perhaps living as survivors of the violence and drug abuse that I made a point of running away and disconnecting myself from. I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t know their stories, and yet here I was judging my students for realities I didn’t know were true or not. I stood there and asked myself, “why are these women still living in poor conditions and in negative environments?” I was associating my students with my family’s past history of abuse and addiction without actually knowing anything about them.
The heaviness I felt was a visceral feeling of knowing that the group of women I was teaching came with real life problems, perhaps some that I can relate to, and problems I knew nothing about. Despite my own background, my education, and my family history of addiction and abuse, I felt emotionally disengaged from the group, and yet it all felt so familiar. For a brief moment it felt like I was an outsider stepping into a reality that was not my own anymore. My whole body was feeling a visceral connection, but my mind could not understand the lives of the women in front of me anymore because I was choosing to not to, instead I chose to judge them for their life choices, or what I thought were their life choices.
After doing some reflecting on this experience I came to the realization that I am not there to rescue these women from their lives. Who am I to even think they need to be saved? For all I know, they might be living the life they want to live.
I realize that the practice of yoga sometimes catches us by surprise. Sometimes emotions come up that we don’t understand. Sometimes our own judgments rear their nasty heads when we least expect it. As teachers we are taught to create space for things to come up for students, but what happens when we don’t create that safe space for ourselves? What happens when we are not centered and grounded? As I prepare myself for the next class I am realize that it is not enough to just prepare my sequence. I need to prepare my mind and body for teaching. I must do more of my own healing and allow my story to be what it is without assuming or judging others’ stories.
I might not ever understand the struggles of the women I teach and that is okay. Perhaps my students will never understand me, and that is okay too. What I can offer is a safe space for them to explore yoga in their bodies without judgement. Even if I can’t relate 100%, I take solace in knowing that yoga will do the work. My own personal healing might not ever be done. I just have to continue showing up and allow myself to learn from my students, learn their stories, and meet them where they are.