“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” –Cornel West
A few days ago, I posted the following picture and caption on my Body Positive Yoga Facebook page:
I got lots of great feedback on this backbend variation, but the most valuable comments (to me) were from two yoga teachers who gently encouraged me to examine my language. They drew attention to the “punch in the gut” cue and suggested that I find non-violent imagery to use instead.
I’m always grateful for a chance to hone my language. I want my yoga classes to be not only body positive, but trauma-sensitive as well, and I have a ton to learn when it comes to creating safer spaces for everyone.
Wisdom of the crowd
I asked a bunch of smart yoga teachers in the Beyond Duality: Yoga and Social Justice Facebook group for another way to cue this energetic action in the body and they had so many good ideas!
The standard cue that we hear in a lot of classes is “pull the navel toward the spine.” This sometimes does a good job of activating the transverse abdominals, but the “punch in the gut” cue that I used creates an abdominal brace which includes the obliques and the back and the legs even, rather than just sucking in the stomach which navel toward the spine often does.
I wanted to share the wisdom from that thread so we can hone our language together.
From Tiina Veer of Yoga For Round Bodies:
Hug your (inner) muscles in to the bones, all the way around — front, sides, back… of mid, upper and lower torso, including buttocks and pelvic floor. Include the inner line of your legs, hug your inner leg muscles in and up. Wrap yourself powerfully but softly. See if over time you can find that hugging-in action versus a clenching-in action.
From Aaron Friesen of Brave Sparrow:
I get folks imagining strings that connect from the iliac crest, diagonally across the belly to the low ribs, and then continuing around back to the shoulder above the hip. I tell them to imagine that when you pull on the string, everything attached to it will draw in slightly. Then I ask them to pull the string. Incidentally, I also find it help people with drawing their shoulders down and in into a more supportive position.
From Charlotte Easterling:
One of my teachers describes it as “zipping up your hoodie,” which I like.
Several folks mentioned a corset, or girdle, or Spanx, and there was a big discussion about those also being a different kind of triggering imagery. Onward…
From Tara Lazanis:
I’ve used corset before but not in the sense of changing shape more in the sensation of drawing inward. What I like to do is think of other places I can cue the body to gain the same shape or sensation, like draw your pelvis and lower ribs towards each other while keeping your shoulders blades moving back and down.
From Teo Drake:
So far in this list, I would feel most able to stay present and follow Tiina Veer’s language. Any reference to the types of gendered clothing mentioned is a struggle for many cisgender men and for transfolks like me.
The concept of wrapping muscles supportively is much more in line with what I am trying to help my body learn to do. “Bracing” for any onslaught isn’t going to help me stay present as easily.
From Lisa Vaughan-Meer of Brute Yogi
It’s the same sensation as sneezing, coughing, or bearing down to poop!
From Hala Khouri:
Lately this is what I do. First I break it down – I have folks connect to the transverse muscles by putting their hands on their hips and feeling the feedback in their fingers inside the front hip bones, then I cue belly to spine, and front ribs soften. Then I connect it with grounding the legs and expanding the collarbones. After the breakdown, I then just say, SUPERHERO POWERS ACTIVATE!
There are so many great cues in here. I’m grateful to my community for all the help on this one.
Now, I know there are a few of you out there who are probably thinking, “these people are overreacting or being too sensitive.” or “Why do we need trauma-sensitive yoga, anyway?”
I wanted to take a moment to share some of my reflections from the Yoga and Body Image Coalition event in Toronto, where I presented a few weeks ago. My biggest takeaway was from Jamilah, founder of Brown Girls Yoga.
The best answer to these questions about why we do social justice work is, we do this stuff so we can love harder. Love more. Lessen suffering.
If someone tells us that they were harmed by something – language we used, a barrier to entering a space (like stairs), a teaching style that didn’t adapt for their body, being touched without consent (a huge problem in yoga spaces perpetuated by teachers), not seeing themselves reflected in the population of a space – don’t we want to meet them halfway? Don’t you want to love harder? Don’t you want to love more? I know I do.
Lean into the discomfort
We can all examine our biases. They are there. I don’t care who you are or what you identify as. Biases and prejudice are baked into us from the time we come out of the womb.
Our job is to identify those biases, and when that uncomfortable feeling comes up, to lean into that discomfort. To poke at that. To be curious about it. To start to push it apart. This is the definition of compassionate self-study (svadhyaya if you want to use yoga-speak).
Our job is to catch it. As quick as we can. And every time I get called on my language or my privilege, if my reaction is to defend myself or roll my eyes (yep, still happens, all the time), I can catch it and challenge myself to love harder. We can all start to do that.
Once we discover those biases, we can lean boldly into them. We can use our privilege (however small it is) to raise up those on the margins. We can learn to allow for the possibility that someone else is having an experience different from our own. We can love harder. Love more. Listen more.
“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
I absolutely love this. I’m inspired by you taking responsibility and trying to change. It requires so much vulnerability and open heartedness. You ma’am are bad ass, and you have me thinking about the things I say in class more. Thank you!
My physical therapist had me do that as an exercise to strengthen my core. He would say to imagine that I have to squeeze behind someone’s chair and the wall in a restaurant. To create my own back brace. He showed me how to feel that the right muscles were activated, and how to breathe while holding the muscles in place. Being braced for an impact is a good description though, because our bodies do it without thinking. Maybe say a shopping cart is rolling downhill straight at you, or your dog just jumped into your lap…. or a kid. … I personally, when trying to hold the brace and dance, think of it as clenching a fist around my whole body… stiffening in the process. I also think it is important for students to recognize that you mean no harm with your description, it is how YOU tell your body what to do. I know of dance moves that I describe in ways that not everyone will like, but they tell my body what I want it to do. We can’t edit everything all the time, or we’ll lose those special qualities that make us individuals. I am a believer in being kind and aware of everyone in the room when I speak, but when I describe my experience, it will come out honestly and unique to me. I don’t think there’s a place for violence in yoga, but I think that you conveyed how you tell your body to do what you want.
Yes, we can always love harder, but in doing so, we can still be who we are. Let’s find the words that don’t trigger, but recognize the intention behind them if some get used.
I can see that you want to be sensitive to what others might have experienced, and continue to experience. And, I don’t think anybody likes being “punched in the gut” — but seriously, when I read that, I finally had a good idea of what I was supposed to do. Sometimes, you the best way to get a point across is not always gentle. It has to be real — whether that is a trigger or not. I know that needles and dentists are triggers for me (you don’t want to see me in the chair when I have to have a something deadened for a dental procedure – it’s bad. Just ask my dentist). But, I certainly can’t go around expecting the world not to mention dentists or needles because I personally have had a traumatic experience.
I wouldn’t want to deliberately cause someone a problem. I’m not making light of using certain terms. But, just because I am uncomfortable does not give me license to demand the world treat me with kid gloves. A part of what I have gotten out of Yoga practice is learning to be in the present, accept what is with as little judgement as possible, and be a part of the whole.
So — I am glad you used this inappropriate language, because it was very helpful to me.
What a great discussion (thanks to great listening) about a question with many answers. I use this mash-up drawn from two teachers I respect – Draw your frontal hip bones toward each other (this snugs you in east to west) and then imagine you are tucking a long t-shirt into your yoga pants (this secures you north and south.)
Thanks for loving harder – and modeling what that can look like!