“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:

Upward-facing dog with a chair

Want to work on upward-facing dog? If you’re still building the strength to balance on just the hands & tops of feet, or if you have limited ankle mobility, try this version of updog with a chair. Brace your abdominals (like someone was going to punch you in the gut – front and back). Pull your hip points up toward your navel to keep your pelvis in good alignment and to keep the low back from hammocking. Straighten the arms, keep the shoulders away from the ears (don’t sink into the shoulders) and squeeze a block between your thighs or calves for extra resistance and to teach your body how to fire up your legs and core.

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.

Love harder.

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