I came to yoga through my queerness, and into all that I know of my truest, queerest, proudest self through yoga. I really mean that--the commingled practice of living as a queer yogi has helped me grow in the fiercest, most rewarding of ways.
Hear me out: I was raised by a Christian family in suburban Wisconsin, where I attended a moderately affluent public school, went to church a minimum of once a week, and was raised with love by two perfectly flawed individuals, who, like every single one of us, hold certain deep-seeded beliefs and have many experiential blind spots. In short, I grew up in comfort without reason or encouragement to question those circumstances. When I think about my upbringing in retrospect, the description that comes to mind is “kind complacency.”
I very clearly remember a moment in 5th grade when I stopped in my tracks and had a fleeting crises around my identity as a “good kid.” It didn’t last long, but more moments like this came to pass, and these flickering moments of introspective awareness and questioning now strike me as the beginnings of my then-burgeoning queer identity. When they eventually culminated in my first intimate experience with another woman, the flickering stopped--suddenly I had a reason to question everything, and this time the identity crisis was anything but fleeting.
I’ll spare you the drawn-out drama of finally realizing and accepting that I was attracted to people of all genders, a story rife with mental health struggles, familial tumult, and the expectedly hilarious sexual fumbles. Suffice it to say that by the time I was entering my junior year of high school I was openly dating my first real girlfriend. When I later found myself minoring in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies in college and learning about queer history and theory, I finally felt both seen and understood by at least one sliver of the world. I had never really felt the meaning of “community” or “heritage,” but here I felt I finally knew who my ancestors were.
There’s a difference between knowing something and feeling or internalizing it. My queerness had made me question my assumptions and the established norms within our society. My experiences dating outside of hetero, cis, monogamous circles gave me a label that felt empowering. I thought I knew queer. And I thought I knew pride--after all, I attended the parade every year.
Enter yoga. This existential spur started as a physical practice that became deeply intimate, personal, and spiritual. While I already knew that asana, the physical postures that most of the West know as “yoga,” helped me feel better in my body and had the vast capacity to instantly buoy my mood, it wasn’t until I really dove into the philosophical underpinnings of the complete practice of yoga that I really started to understand what a miraculous roadmap to truth it could be.
Asana, the physical postures or “poses” you practice in a typical Western yoga class, is only one of eight limbs of yoga, as described in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, a paramount text of the raja path of yoga. There are other yogic paths that may resonate more with other practitioners, but this system of ashtanga (eight limbs) both aligns with and informs my queer sense of self and has offered me a dynamic set of tools for self-inquiry. Reading about the spiritual philosophy of yoga for the first time was like reading something you wrote yourself years after you actually put pen to paper--you don’t know what words are coming next, but when they do they’re familiar, an echo of a former, formative self.
When I first found my queerness, I felt it coming from within, and above, and around me. Finding yoga felt the same, like it was already part of me, but also something I knew nothing about and desperately needed in order to be fulfilled. The connection I had felt with the queer community suddenly broadened, and I was left feeling connected with humanity and with nature in a way that profoundly shifted my worldview once again.
I feel the need to say here that I in no way consider myself “enlightened.” However, what I do feel is a definite sense of truthfulness in my life and my conduct that I didn’t experience before I began my yoga practice. It’s the same feeling of authenticity that came along with coming out as a queer woman. I’m no sage, but I am another step closer to knowing myself as the divine creature that I am.
The Bhagavad Gita, another seminal text, defines yoga as “the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” I know this to be true. I also know it to be my queer experience. Queerness, to me, is a lifelong journey, a constant exploration, a sexual and political identity, a religion in and of itself, a spiritual connectedness that transcends the boundaries of the of the LGBT community and extends to all things. It’s a means of understanding the universe itself. Being queer is to question every system society has built. Practicing yoga is to do that same work internally.
For me at least, “pride” is what this bifold quest for truth has to offer. Pride is resistance to normative existence, to oppression, to violence, and to complacency. It’s boundless love in action, even in the face of opposition. It is the act of honoring our lineage and creating a better world for our descendants. Pride isn’t a parade. It’s not even a noun, it’s a verb, and, as is yoga, it’s a practice that you show up for every day.
Melanie Williams, Freed Bodyworks' practice manager and RYT-200, teaches active asana classes every Mondays and Friday at 9 a.m. After many years of dedicated personal practice, she completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training at Capitol Hill Yoga in 2016. Melanie is described by students as a welcoming, intuitive, and adaptively challenging teacher, and by peers and mentors as both knowledgeable and constantly learning. When she's not teaching, practicing or managing, she can be found advocating for diversity and accessibility in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition's leadership team.