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teacherstudent: Revisiting Yoga & Queer Identity

Melanie doing the splits with arms raised in Malcolm X Park.

Last June, I wrote a blog post called “Pride and Practice.” It was about yoga and queerness, and the similarities I recognized in my journies to finding each of them. What struck me the most at that time was the sense of alignment I felt when I finally found my queer truth and again when I found truth within a yoga practice. At the time I described it as “coming from within, and above, and around me," 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.” I would still describe it that way, but it also occurs to me now that I was only scratching the surface with that description.

This year, when June rolled around, I intended to revisit the topics of that post. I have read and reread it, and I’ve started a dozen follow-ups that kept coming up lacking. I knew I had so much more to say, but I couldn’t figure out what felt off, why I couldn’t commit words to page or fully articulate my thoughts.

Melanie in a reclined yoga pose in a yoga studio.

I now see I was thinking too narrowly.

Here we are, now half way through July, and my second post on queerness and yoga may end up looking vastly different than I expected it to, even a month ago, when I first drafted that first sentence.

In the past year, I developed and taught a three-hour workshop called Yoga & Queer Identity, based on a lot of the ideas that spurred me to write that original post. At the time of this writing, I’ve taught the workshop three times, in two different iterations, and on all of these occasions the vibrancy of the conversation, the beauty of the shared practice, the safe hug of familiarity within our identity group led to an experience that I found so incredibly empowering, personally and professionally. Feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive, and more studios have offered me their space to host this conversation. I am, indeed, proud, and deeply grateful.

I also find myself utterly humbled by the experience, in part because it is one of those rare times where I can look at the beginning of a project, the moment of conception, and be totally honest with myself: I thought I knew so much, and I knew so very little. I recognized the deep parallels between a queer experience and a spiritual one, saw the beauty in that reflection, and then I failed to look deeper. In doing so, I was denying myself a greater understanding of this world and this universe. I was unable to bring that greater understanding to my students.

In the year since, I have done a lot of thinking on the definition and role of a teacher. In a training I recently on teaching yoga as a trauma intervention, a member of my cohort (who is a school teacher as well as a yoga teacher) shared a now-obsolete use of the verb “to teach” which defines it as, “to show someone the way; to guide; to walk with.” In reading many different definitions, I’ve also been drawn to, “to cause to know.” A favorite local yoga teacher, who’s podcast I listen to religiously, Francesca Cervero, said in an episode that she sees the role of the teacher as that of a question-asker--we’re not there to give our students the answers, just to help them ask the questions. We each already contain multitudes. We contain the answers. We can find them when we do the work of looking, the work of noticing, the work of yoga.

Melanie in a low lunge pose, arms extended overhead, in a yoga studio.

Walk-wither. Question-asker. Mentor. Sponsor. Guide. Someone who causes to know. I love these an synonyms for teacher. And I love how broadly this casts the net as to who can be considered a teacher. Anyone can make me ask questions and seek answers! Children frequently make me ask questions. My students are constantly causing me to know more. My partners walk with me, and infuriate me, and make me vibrate with joy, and reflecting on our love and our conflict teaches me new things every day. This means we’re all teachers if we’re helping others ask questions. If we’re bearing witness to a journey. If we’re relating. And if we’re all teachers and all students, we can consider ourselves to be on equal footing. We can live and learn without trying to establish artificial hierarchy. Without competing to be the one and only teacher, to be on top. With a genuine inquisitiveness that can be sated by rooting deeply into relationship with diverse companions, with nature, and with those multitudes within ourselves. What a dream! What a reality.

Having said all of that, I return to my reflections on the queer yoga workshop. Sure, I believe my students learned something, were taught something. But I also was taught a great many things by my students. They each walked into the room and then walked (or sat, breathed, and moved) with me for three hours of my journey. They asked questions, sometimes verbally, sometimes just by being there, that I then had the space and opportunity to explore. My gratitude to them is vast.

Here are some of the things, in no particular order, that I learned or relearned as I was lucky enough to surrounded by a room full of eager journiers, mentors, teachers, students:

  • To learn is to be present, honest, and adaptable. I am my best self when I am fully in the moment. My students have taught me to stay in the moment, at least while I’m in the room with them, in part because I want to offer them my best self, and in part because they are there, sharing their vulnerability with me, and keeping me in a constant state of learning. I do not know who will enter the room before they do so. There’s no way to prepare for every situation. You can’t know what you can’t know. But in presence, challenges you didn’t know to expect show up clearly, in real time, asking questions like any good teacher. If you’re able to respond, to adapt to that challenge, then you will, but it all starts with being present enough and honest enough to see the situation for what it is.

  • To learn is to fuck up--and not judge yourself too harshly for it. You were present. You noticed a challenge. You tried to adapt, and you hurt someone or crossed your own boundaries in the process. This. Happens. To. Everyone. To err is human. And it does not feel good, nor does it excuse the harm. So we make amends, whenever we can do so without causing more harm. And then we learn from the experience so that we’re not doomed to repeat it. For the yoga philosophers out there, this is a practice in ahimsa (non-harm). If you judge yourself harshly, only reflect on the experience with self-criticism, you’re just perpetuating the harm. You’re hurting yourself, and you’re not giving yourself the space to gently reflect and ensure you’re not hurting other people by making the same mistakes over and over again in the future. Every experience is data--use it. Call it research. Call it exploration. Call it opportunity. Keep learning.

  • We learn through relationships. And yoga is all about relationships, union, yoking. We learn whenever we see differences and similarities, in other people, in experiences, in the patterns of the body and of the universe. We can teach by pointing out connections, parallels, patterns, fractals. We can learn by looking at another being, sharing our experiences, and noticing what is the same and what is different. We don’t achieve anything in a vacuum. To stop relating is to stop growing.

  • Teachers and students are equals, because we’re all human, and we’re all learning from and teaching one another. We are never one or the other, always a teacherstudent. Even when the teacherstudent is a child. Even when they’re not traditionally educated. Regardless of identity, appearance, or status. This does not mean we treat everyone the same, but it does mean we strive for equity in our classrooms, yoga studios, homes, workplaces, clubs, religious institutions. In the yoga studio, we redistribute props as necessary, we adapt to make mat space available, we strive to offer effective and sustainable sliding scale. In the home, we do so with resources--you would not feed an adult and an infant the same food or amount of food, but you would make sure both were full. In society, communities acting out of a sense of equity redistribute wealth, share of voice, power.

  • We are (and share) so much more than an identity. This was maybe the most evident takeaway from my first three experiences teaching this workshop. We came together because we shared two things: queerness and an interest in yoga. I expected the conversation in these rooms to revolve around those connections, but every time, the conversation got so much broader than just those two similarities. We talked about our many other intersections. We talked about seemingly mundane life events with the power to teach great truths. We talked about violence, and politics, and religion, and family. Sometimes it had everything to do with queerness, sometimes it had nothing at all to do with queerness. Sometimes I forgot it was a queer workshop at all because we were nodding our heads to a shared love of Janelle Monáe (okay, that one was pretty queer) or a common appreciation for farmers market asparagus. Sometimes I forgot it was a queer workshop because we were talking about police violence and institutional racism, and half of the room, myself included, was reflecting on a difference of experience that a shared sexual identity couldn’t possibly bridge. It occurred to me that most of the conversation we had could have been shared with anybody, queer or not, that the value of a queer workshop was not necessarily a rigidity in content (i.e. WE CAN ONLY TALK ABOUT QUEER STUFF) but the safe container we created for the dynamic, fluid conversation of which our queer identity is just a small piece.

Melanie with arms wrapped like an eagle pose, eyes closed, in a yoga studio.

Perhaps I’ve written all of this to say that my first post last June was and is true, but it was and is limited also. I stopped drawing connections after I found one. That’s not enough, and I think I needed to go through the process of teaching this workshop to really learn it’s not enough. It is my responsibility and yours, as teachers, students, walk-withers, partners, question-askers, humans to keep drawing more and deeper connections.

Nonstop. Always. Forever.

I will keep offering this workshop because the container it creates is important. But the container is just that and nothing more until it becomes a vessel for something. That something is co-created by whoever enters the room, and it will be dynamic and different every single time, which is beautiful and humbling to me as a facilitator, and teaches me flexibility, impermanence, iteration, and, yes, yoga.

Melanie Williams is a fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher, student, and practitioner and Freed Bodyworks' practice manager. She co-leads the Yoga & Body Image Coalition, currently serves as an expert adviser on inclusion for the Yoga Alliance Standard's Review Project, and regularly offers workshops on yoga, queer identity, and body image. Her next Yoga & Queer Identity workshop is scheduled for August 18th, 2018 at Freed. REGISTER NOW

Top photo by Fid Thompson. Second photo by Melanie Williams. Third and fourth photos by Tyler Grigsby.

#yoga #queeryoga #queerness #queertheory #queer #identity #yogaqueeridentity #teacherstudent #teaching #yogateacher #learning #fractals

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