In 2008, I stepped into my first yoga class, a yoga nidra class to be exact. I wish that I could say that I was seeking spiritual enlightenment, but the truth is that after fifteen-plus years of suffering from panic attacks that had a habit of sneaking up on me at the most inopportune time (giving a lecture to a class while working as an adjunct instructor and having to be taken out by paramedics, to name just one of those exact moments).
It had become clear that anxiety and panic were starting to take a toll on my life and that I needed to face the issue head-on. While medication was most certainly an option, I was uncomfortable with the idea of using medication before exhausting all other options, and my research revealed that yoga was possibly one way to manage the panic attacks that had plagued me for years.
I wish that I could say that I went to that first class and left feeling like a brand new person; actually, I left the class thinking: “What kind of woo-woo-ass bullshit did I just participate in?” However, I am stubborn and figured I would give it an honest chance before committing to medication. After weeks of classes, I did experience a shift. I learned to feel my body and that in truly feeling my body, I could feel the signs of tension building that would lead to a full-on attack. I also found that combined with mindfulness around my breath, I could lessen the strength and duration of the panic attacks.
Over time, I would add on full-length ashtanga yoga classes and over the years, the frequency and duration of the attacks dropped sharply. A life without fear of what had been the omnipresent panic attacks became a reality and my love of yoga grew. I started putting the cost of yoga classes into the budget like a regular bill because $100 a month seemed a small price to pay for reclaiming my life. Despite my professional life as a non-profit executive director, I decided to study to become a yoga teacher because my one issue with yoga had always been how overwhelmingly white the discipline is, especially in Maine.
In 2013,I started the process to become a yoga teacher and I also applied for a new job out of state as the executive director of a small anti-racism organization. I was hired in the fall of 2013 with a start date of January 2014. Life felt good. I was a totally immersed yogi, practicing every day, developing strength that I had never known, looking at major life changes and most importantly keeping the anxiety at bay that had almost destroyed my life.
I started my position at Community Change Inc. in January 2014 and despite the plan to move to Boston, life happened. My marriage was in a state of emergency and I knew that if we were to break up, there was no way I could support myself in Boston on my lone income. So I made the painful decision, much to the consternation of my board of directors, to commute from Maine. Initially I was taking the train to Boston three to four times a week. With a 4 a.m. wake-up for the 5:20 train and a return home at 7:00 on a good night, my daily yoga practice fell by the wayside. During that time, I remembered a lesson that my yoga teacher said often: “What happens on the mat mirrors what happens off the mat and in many ways, your time on the mat is about preparing for life often the mat.” At times those words rang hollow yet they sat with me and over time, they would become my lifeline.
In August of 2014, I was eight months into a position that at the time wasn’t going well as financially stabilizing the organization was my key priority. Yet the 125-mile distance between my office and home meant I couldn’t put in the 10- to 12-hour days needed to connect with our organizational base to build my support. My marriage was growing even more strained, it seemed like every other week I was battling a bug as my resistance was down, and frankly I felt like I had made a horrible mistake in taking the job. Then Michael Brown was killed and the Ferguson uprising happened, people were starting to pay attention to the gross racial inequities that were still very real and I found myself thrust into a position of needing to truly guide my organization that has the distinct honor of being the oldest, continuously running anti-racism organization in the country. As the head of the organization, people wanted community and they wanted answers. I was 41 at the time, which is still pretty young by the standards of non-profit directors, and…well…it was a time period where I learned a lot about myself and my limits and pushing through them. I also learned that I desperately needed yoga to stay above the fray but the limitations of 24 hours in a day meant that the almost daily time I needed on the mat to keep my anxiety at bay simply was not possible. Instead, I went to class as I could and went further into breathwork and meditation even on a moving train to keep my equilibrium.
I juggled all the balls until Dec of 2014 when, at a much needed massage, my massage therapist discovered an unusual lump on my back. A few weeks later after developing strange sensations on the right side of my back and shoulder, I went to my general practitioner who assured me that the lump was a benign lipoma and that while surgery was an option, doing nothing was also an option. Given the realities of my personal life and work at that time, I opted to do nothing which in hindsight was a horrible decision, as I would spend the next year living with discomfort. Discomfort that started to affect my yoga practice. When I did make time to get on the mat, I couldn’t do a full primary series practice without feeling like I was about to die. In early 2015, the decision was made to separate after 18 years of marriage and 20 years of being a couple. It was also the year that I had to shit or get off the pot with regard to my day job and either get the organization stabilized or watch a 40-something-year-old organization die on my watch, which would be tantamount to career suicide.
My life was messy and complex, as was my yoga practice; then to add fuel to the fire, given the nature of my work, increasingly I was being called on to show up both locally and regionally to talk about race. However, as messy as it all was, I learned a lot about life that can only come from lived experience. I learned that the time on the mat does indeed imitate life off the mat. I learned that in my work, the key to change was compassion and creating space for people to not be perfect.
Anti-racism work is ultimately about people; yes, we are fighting a system called white supremacy, a hideous system, yet systems involve people and that’s where the compassion comes in and the space to fuck it up. We can know the lingo, we can understand how oppression works in our heads and how utterly wrong it is but change happens when our hearts and heads connect and form a union.
2015 would eventually end but not before I saw myself leave our family home and start over in a apartment that pretty much could fit inside 2.5 rooms of the house that had long been my home. By the end of 2015, I could barely do a single sun salutation without wincing and my organization ended both our fiscal and calendar year with a deficit which, when you are still a relatively new executive director, isn’t ideal. Yet I persisted.
In early 2016, I would finally have surgery to remove the fast growing lipoma which was taking over my life, and the recovery period provided a much-needed break to clear my head. I would return back to the office with more compassion for myself and my limitations and others. Learning compassion was a hard lesson coming but one I needed and one that continues to resonate deeply with me and which now spills over in my work. I also learned compassion on the mat, for when I was finally cleared to return to yoga, the strength I had built up over the years had atrophied and poses I once could master in my sleep were hard to hold. Yet I would end 2016 on a high professional note as I saw our new programming structure come together, a successful partnership with The Privilege Institute form and the first ever White Privilege Symposium in our region, and lastly an erasure of the financial deficit. Organizational stability was no longer a dream but a real reality.
2016 became the year that America lost her compass and the compassion that I had developed in myself allowed me to extend grace to people whose views I did not share and yet develop a common bridge to connect. I would later see seeds of change developing in people who once doubted the existence of white supremacy. I would over time see my very own home yoga community start openly discussing white supremacy and how it harms. Yet it was the result of years of putting in the time with people.
Right now, I am standing at a crossroads as I see the anger that is driving so much of the dialogue on both sides and knowing so many other change makers who are exhausted at what at times feels like deliberate obtuseness on the side of others. Yet it took America hundreds of years to get here and while it may not take hundreds of years to right the ship, it is going to take real time to dismantle the systems of oppression that unfairly burden all without white skin; thus, we must work harder than ever especially in the era of Trump.
Education, activism and organizing are all key to creating systemic change but increasingly I believe that we need to create space for beloved community and mindfulness in our toolboxes of social change. Beloved community combined with collective and individual mindfulness need to undergird our education, activism and organizing efforts. We can’t let others off the hook but when we touch and feed our own bodies and souls with these tools, it strengthens us to create space that allows for the mistakes that will happen along the way. As for me, I am slowly rebuilding my yoga practice and I am up to a few minutes a day on the mat most days and allowing the space that I create on the mat to guide me off the mat during these unprecedented times.
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