The lesson of discomfort, yoga and activism

By Elige Stewart, Just B Yoga teacher trainee

We attended the Women’s March (which turned out to be a rally) at the capitol in Lansing on Saturday as a study of the intersection of social action and yoga, as part of the first day of our yoga teacher training. When I returned home, I greeted my assignment with enthusiasm! I blended the concepts of the yamas and niyamas with thoughts on the march and quickly surpassed the 600 word requirement for the essay before retiring to my bed for the evening to prepare for the long day ahead of me on Sunday.

Here’s the thing: I serendipitously forgot to save this essay. When I returned to try to find my writing only to be greeted by a giant empty space where it should be, I’d love to say that I handled it with grace, class and the general attitude that everything happens for a reason, which is exactly how I handled it after my toddler-sized meltdown.

In retrospect, I’m actually glad that my original piece disappeared, because this mirrors my biggest personal challenge in addressing my own practice in yoga – authenticity and depth.  Instead of directly tying my views of social action in general to the yamas and niyamas, I’m practicing satya (truthfulness) in admitting that I kind of called it in with the first essay I wrote.  Why did do that?  Because it’s easier to attach yoga vocabulary to practices and experiences than it is to sit in the discomfort that sometimes comes along with those experiences, examine this discomfort, acknowledge it, and use it as a catalyst for growth. In other words, it’s more work than just slapping on a few labels and calling it good.

So this begs a few questions.

Why does this make me uncomfortable?

What can I learn from this discomfort?

And isn’t yoga supposed to feel good?

What place does discomfort or pain have in your practice?

The Women’s Rally, like all public forums of social action, make made me uncomfortable on a lot of different levels.  A big part of this is my aversion to crowds, but in all honesty this was all but eliminated in feeling the sense of community that pervaded this event. (It truly was a beauty that is beyond words.) What runs a little deeper though is a semi-conscious fear of confrontation, rejection and violence that arises from experiences that I had dealing with social action when I was younger. Many of the same rights and issues that I was working towards when I had negative experiences are being mirrored again in the current political climate. For me, this became a moment of mindfulness.

What happened already happened, and it’s not happening now” passed  through my thoughts as I took it all in, and I was finally able to re-frame the experience as the amazing celebration of unity that it actually was instead of letting my past experiences be in the driver’s seat.

We can learn a lot from discomfort.  When I was just thirteen, I told my mother that I was gay. As a matter of fact, I came out pretty openly, which was probably not the wisest decision in the early nineties in rural Virginia in terms of overall safety and ease of life.  I was harassed, gay bashed, and basically driven out of my school.  After being sent to the hospital in an ambulance once already after an incident, I had a locker pushed over on me while getting ready for gym class because I’m a ‘pussified faggot.’

The administration’s response was that boys will be boys.

I’m utterly convinced that had I not been born to my mother, that I would have killed myself. After pulling me out of school, she loaded me into her car and we started going to various community centers. She started calling people until she found a handful of organizations that she then insisted that we both participate with. One of these – Virginians for Justice – paired me with a legal team that brought me in front of the state senate to speak out about what happened to me at the school. When I was silenced mid-sentence at the hearing, I thought my mother would come unglued. Since we weren’t able to get the protections for LGBTQ youth directly from the law, she pushed for those protections to be implemented from other directions.  As a former educator, she was able to get us an audience at a meeting for the Virginia Education Association, where they immediately began working on adopting language to protect gay and lesbian students from hate crimes.  Keep in mind during this process, I’m an awkward, shy (yes, for real), very uncomfortable teenager. But, I had a small hand in change.

So, what does this have to do with rolling out the yoga mat?

Sthirasukhamasanam: The cultivation of firmness and softness/gentleness in our asana practice.

This could also be looked at as developing steadiness and ease, but it’s all too easy to mistake this concept of steady and easy for complacence. The fact that we are to find steadiness and ease in our practice means that we are inherently going to stray from this place from time to time. We find ourselves in places of discomfort, and we have to actually turn our awareness inward. Why are we feeling this? Is this discomfort actually pain (which means that we should change something!)? Does this discomfort arise from a physical place, or from something less tangible? Is this a limit? Is this a moment of surrender or discipline?

It’s in this line of questioning that I find the truest intersection between social action and my yoga practice.  Ultimately, I feel that I could easily become complacent. A life that is easy and steady frequently appeals to me, but my heart can’t bear the cost that I see in those around me in need. My form of social action rarely involves marches or rallies. The crowds are a personal limit that I find difficult to overcome. Instead, I give my time to an organization that helps a variety of people, primarily working in a program with ex-offenders who are rebuilding their lives. I’ll soon be giving time to an organization that helps veterans, people who are differently-abled, and LGBTQ youth.

Social action comes in many forms – from affecting political change to feet on the ground grassroots efforts in the community.  We all live busy lives that allow us to become complacent because it seems easy and steady, but that’s not growth. Our communities have not flourished because people liked them on Facebook. They flourish when we actively engage in them.  We have to allow ourselves to be a part of something bigger than we are – community – and this can sometimes challenge our concepts of ego and identity. But it’s worth it.

We are all but seeds, containing immense and beautiful potentials. The best way to realize these potentials is to plant ourselves in the gardens of our community.

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