Gentle Yoga Practice for Healing

In the past week, I’ve experienced some new/renewed lower back pain. And the pain has brought me back to my yoga mat and specifically to this gentle yoga practice:

I appreciate this video for the s-l-o-w movement, the focus on breath, and the ways my body responds. With each day’s practice, I’m feeling a little less pain, a little more openness, and a little more myself. This practice also invites a quietness for me, allowing me to listen—and not only to my body and myself, but also to the messages I’m receiving (and not really recognizing or processing) throughout the day.

Such a process helps enormously with healing—and not just with physical pain, but also with legacies of personal and collective trauma and injustice.

Healing the Mind-Body Split and Valuing Yoga as Spiritual Practice

I found yoga (or it found me?) in 2008. Both friends and physical therapists advised me to “try a class” and recommended Main Street Yoga, where I luckily connected with a few instructors and found some relief for back pain (when coupled with acupuncture and a range of other healing methods, which I’m sure to write about in future posts :-)).

At first, I understood yoga as asana practice—the movement, breathing, and meditation I did in classes. This focus on the body was empowering to me, as I had become so cut off from my embodied being that I remember asking questions like:

  • “You mean that I can actively change my breathing? … How?”
  • “What’s the pelvic floor? How do I feel it? How do I engage it?”
  • “How do I rotate some muscles in and others out—and at the same time?”
  • “Why do my wrists hurt so much?”
  • “My body—as in MY BODY—can go upside down? … No, really?”

Over time, I could actively feel in my body that tension in my shoulders was connected down my back, through my legs, and into my feet. I could tell that when my calf muscles were tight, my neck would also hurt. I could feel my breath and began to see how it was shrinking (becoming only a gasp) when I was nervous. I could recognize the link between pulling at my toenail cuticles (so that I’d soak my feet in Espom salt) and doing so at times when I needed grounding or courage. I could see that my body was desperately trying to communicate with me, if only I would pay attention.

In this way, yoga practice was helping me value my body and embodied knowledge, which I’d become cut off from. In the United States—and western, individualistic contexts, more generally—we tend to de-value the body, intuition, and feelings, while over-valuing the mind, logic, and rationale thinking. This is especially true in higher education, where I spend much of my life.

My introduction to yoga countered this problem of disembodiment. Still, I faced another problem, which I’m coming to understand as the flip side of the same coin: by focusing on asana/movement, yoga practice became entirely about the body. Again, in the United States—and western/individualistic contexts—yoga is associated with exercise rather than spiritual practice. Rather than seeing the body as connected with one’s mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual lives (as giving insights into and helping us experience our spiritual selves), popular notions of yoga treat the body as the end goal. In this way, yoga = exercise; yoga = muscle strengthening and toning; yoga = de-stressing the body; yoga = physical healing …

Over time (and I’m still very much learning today), I’ve come to understand yoga as a larger spiritually-focused and culturally-grounded practice, a practice that aligns with ecofeminism, veganism, and decoloniality. Through studying the Yoga Sūtras (alongside other spiritual teachings and Reiki practice), I now come to embodied-movement-based asana as a spiritual practice, as prayer.

Even when returning to my yoga mat because of back pain, I ask throughout asana practice: What is this pain trying to tell me? What does my body have to teach me about myself and what I’m not consciously acknowledging? How is my body expressing my emotions, and why am I feeling those emotions? I listen closely, planning to take action as guided.

Healing from Whiteness and Practicing Yoga for Justice

The post can’t end here—with my valuing of yoga as spiritual practice—because I can’t write about yoga without thinking about whiteness. Deeply troubling, in the United States, yoga is raced, classed, and gendered so that it’s associated with middle-/upper-class white women. Yoga magazines, websites, and advertisements feature not only white women, but images of whiteness (the social construct). Similarly, yoga studios manifest whiteness through spa-like environments, unspoken codes related to respectability politics, and other features of this social construct.

I’m a middle-/upper-class white woman. This means that when I look for yoga instructors or videos online (like the one I share above), I typically find people who not only look like me, but who also share much of my background and beliefs. Such common ground goes deeper—and is more insidious, still—as numerous privileges associated with my identity allowed me to stumble my way into my first yoga class and, from there, into a meaningful yoga practice. Even the ability (time-space-mobility-access) to practice yoga asana represents layers of privilege.

Such privileges call on me to consider cultural appropriation and the problematics of yoga in the U.S. (western/individualistic) context. There’s much work to be done toward changing the ways we [read: “we” in the United States, particularly white people, people in the yoga community, and people with privilege/power] understand, construct space around, talk about, and otherwise “do” yoga.

I think that yoga—particularly the 8 limbs of yoga (with asana being just 1 of 8)—has much to offer on the long haul toward justice. Concentration (dharana), contemplation (dhyana), and careful study (svadhyaya) are all absolutely necessary for self-work. Similarly, nonviolence (ahimsa) motivates anti-racism and other movements for social justice, including current work to decolonize yoga. Here I think especially about the resources Decolonizing Yoga and Sistah Vegan Project (both of which offer extensive content—and blogs I follow). Following the spiritual practice of yoga should help us uncover systems of inequity and injustice and to develop the resilience and insights needed for intervention.

For me, such work—striving toward the “ought to be”—brings me back to my yoga mat and includes asana practice. With the larger spiritual and justice-oriented practice in mind/heart, I need the time-space for quiet, slow movement. Currently, it matters to me that the practice is gentle, as the gentleness toward myself (non-judging lovingkindness) allows for gentleness more broadly (non-judging toward uncovering internalized prejudice, developing bias literacy, and kindly correcting myself for the harm/wrongs I do).

Too often, I realize after-the-fact that I’m back in a spiral of beating myself up for the crap I inevitably do as a white person (as whiteness itself is a pathology that means always messing up and living in mess). To choose differently—to humbly acknowledge the mess and to step out of pathological hurt—I need gentle practice. This gentleness is not to excuse, explain away, or allow for white supremacy. Instead, it is to work on healing the wounds and white fragility that manifest as back pain.

With hands (and feet!), I’m working to ground myself and to heal not only my recent flare-up of back pain but also the pain underlying this physical pain. I’m also “taking it easy”—practicing slowly, mindfully, even cautiously—and using my favorite gentle yoga video to do so.

Going forward, I’d like to think more about yoga during illness, as too often it’s illness (or physical pain) that brings me back to asana practice. I’d like to honor my body’s wisdom when it speaks to me in whispers (and to hear the quiet whispers and not just the screams of pain). I’d also like to explore the links between spiritual practice and resiliency. I’d like to commit now—today and every day—to embodied self-care for justice.

Author: Beth Godbee

I’m an educator living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with connections to many places, including East Tennessee, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. I write from my identities as a white, feminist teacher and researcher; reiki and yoga practitioner; hiker and vegan. These commitments lead to me to think and write about intersectional identities, embodiment, power, and rights, among other matters. My deepest commitments are to equity, justice, and peace. In this blog, I document my ongoing efforts, struggles, and attitude of “try-try again” to align with these commitments.

7 thoughts on “Gentle Yoga Practice for Healing”

  1. Thank you for putting all these important thoughts together, including some worries I’ve had about yoga and some deeper reflections I hadn’t found my way to yet. I loved yoga so much, but gave up group yoga classes for most of the past few years. I was forced to modify pretty much everything for a litany of serious but largely invisible physical challenges (surgeries, back injuries, etc.). I tried hard to stick with it, but letting go of my thirst for competition (mostly against myself) really took the joy out of the whole enterprise. I have held onto very simple, slow asana on my own, and some of the breath and meditation practices have saved me. In some ways I feel like yoga is the most supportive and inclusive movement there is, and in some ways all that rhetoric can reinforce its exclusivity. Maybe I’ll be ready to try again soon, but it’s sad to feel like I’m on the outside of something that used to be a big part of my life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks so so much for commenting! I feel like I can really relate with your experience, especially about not attending classes anymore. Though some of my best and most learning-full yoga experiences have been in groups (especially in retreat settings), I’ve also really struggled with group practices. Because I practice slowly and want to listen to and follow my body’s guidance, I typically don’t/can’t follow an instructor’s plan—and some instructors seem really shaken by me doing my own thing.

    In D.C., I found a free hatha yoga class at the public library, and I enjoyed practicing with that group when I could. Unlike all other classes I’ve attended, it was racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse. Sometimes kids would practice and play alongside parents; older and younger folks would be side-by-side; and modifications were the norm. I still practiced slower than most folks in the room, but found that my slow pace led to good conversations, especially when other people expressed concerns about not going with the group’s flow.

    Such group practice has also led me to think much more about what it means to be moving intuitively. For me, intuitive practice means that I’ll stick out in a group—something I’ve been conditioned not to do and still fear. That sense that I’ll “stick out” has further led me to pull away from group practice and also further into a critique of “inclusive” yoga classes. If I feel like I stick out (and I’m a white, middle-/upper-class woman, who’s able-bodied and fairly fit), how must others feel?

    Like you, I still find so much value in the technology, thinking, and spiritual practice of yoga. I want this way of being in the body—a way that links up to serious engagement with the self and others (i.e., what it means to live responsibly)—to be widely accessible. How do we get there? How do we restructure the apparatus around yoga in the U.S.? Currently, it seems more about reinforcing the status quo, than inviting real change …

    I’d love to hear more about your experience. Sending good wishes! And I’m so appreciating your response (it’s hard to know how readers are responding and it feels scary to put out ideas when they’re always in partial and process ).

    Beth

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